Review of Tartuffe at Berkeley Rep

In “On the Scene,” a series on theater, we ask current graduate students to review select local plays. For those of you in the Bay, this will be an excellent way to keep track of nearby theatrical offerings. For those of you elsewhere, perhaps these reviews can re-create a little slice of Berkeley theater for you.

The sixth piece in the series is a review by C.F.S. Creasy of the Berkeley Rep’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe, directed by Dominique Serrand. It is playing until April 12.

Dominique Serrand’s adaptation of Molière’s scandalous satire Tartuffe begins with an epigraph from Molière, projected on a black screen and read in a voice-over. I recall, from memory and imperfectly: “I am a demon robed in flesh and dressed as a man, a libertine, an infidel worthy of exemplary punishment. It is not enough that fire expiate my offense in public … I must absolutely be damned.” The words are quoted seductively out of context—they come from Molière’s first appeal to King Louis XIV to lift the ban placed on performances immediately after its May 1664 debut, in which the playwright quotes a Parisian curate’s view of him only to contrast this overzealous misrecognition with the king’s own more discerning appreciation for the work. Molière’s gambit was to show that such “tartuffes” have “profited by [the king’s] delicacy of conscience in matters of religion,” to convince the king that in truth his play leaves “no equivocation.” As epigraph, then, it becomes a subtle and effective setting of the contemporary stage, immediately establishing what will be the ground note of Serrand’s interpretation: reveling in the equivocation and ambiguity that lies in the playwright’s own protestations of piety, he gives us a darker and more sinister satire than Molière’s appeal to the king would admit. Here, as in Molière’s texts, the opposition of false devotion and true piety is more apparent than real. Serrand’s production may play on the knife’s edge of comedy and tragedy, but it does so with that knife firmly and menacingly in its grip.

The play centers on the machinations of the titular hypocritical and conniving directeur de conscience and the family put at risk by the blind faith that Orgon (Luverne Seifert), the head of the household, places in him. At the heart of the play we encounter the theatricality and seductiveness of hypocrisy, the disjuncture of word from act or claim from truth, and the opposition between fanaticism and good sense. One can easily see why it was a politically and religiously scandalous work in 17th-century France, despite the apparently reasonable figure of authorial morality presented by Cléante (Gregory Linington), and despite the rex ex machina of the concluding scene (where royal wisdom is figured as something like divine, quelling the near-total disorder irradiating from Tartuffe’s falseness). For at every point the essential difference between the true and the false threatens to dissolve, just as authority itself threatens to dissolve into blind, arbitrary force as Orgon subjects his family to Tartuffe with increasing violence and caprice.

This production, generally, leaves relatively unmarked the play’s pointedly dramatic or spectatorial meditations on the nature of hypocrisy’s ostentatious self-performance (the numerous scenes with spectator-interpreter figures present onstage), instead directing its energies into a manifestation of that undercurrent of real menace—less as spectacle than as physical presence. Steven Epp truly embodies this, playing Tartuffe at a full tilt of ostentation. Careening from nearly animalistic licentiousness (in, say, the culminating moments of his attempted courtship of Orgon’s wife Elmire [Sofia Jean Gomez]) to pharisaical, melodramatic piety (staged as a martyr complex replete with sexualized crucifixion poses and flagellation paraphernalia). Epp’s physicality is barely contained and consistently gripping, lending the more satirical moments of false piety an erotic energy that shades into sheer aggression and lust for power as seamlessly as the true shades into the false in this production.

Epp’s Tartuffe is stunningly complemented by Gomez’s Elmire, who flaunts her own sexuality and toys with Tartuffe’s desire palpably enough to give some credence to the faux dévot’s intimation that her beauty stands on the threshold between physical manifestation of divine love and duplicitous spectacle of temptation. The darkest and most captivating moments of this production are embodied in the tension—at once psychological and physical, theological and sexual—between the two. And the Tartuffe-Elmire dyad is set in relief by the compellingly farcical dyad of Lenne Klingaman’s Mariane and Christopher Carley’s Valère, played as cardboard-thin adolescents to great effect. This is achieved with particular hilarity in what was, to my mind, the best moment of the production—Act II, Scene iv—when the central tension building around the yet-to-appear figure of Tartuffe is simultaneously erased and reinscribed in the comedy of misapprehensions between the ludicrously star-crossed young lovers.

These two character dyads, brilliant in different ways, nevertheless mark something of the unevenness in the production: at the level of character and performance, it oscillates between a dark psychological interpretation and a two-dimensional puppet show inspired (like Molière) by Commedia dell’arte, but without fully committing to either tendency. Of course, the necessary translation of a 17th-century French play into a contemporary Anglo-American context imposes this dilemma, which the production resolves with conviction, but also mixed results. One cannot help feeling at moments that something has been missed in the way Serrand interprets the play’s comedic possibilities, if it became necessary for comedy to have been fully erased by the time the intermission hits. The Punch and Judy dynamic between Mariane and Valère is uproarious and brilliantly choreographed; other moments, though, fall somewhat flat. The “belching” and “farting” ribaldry of the early scenes is a deflated substitute for Molière’s more subtle juxtapositions of high and low (which, while essentially indebted to the Commedia dell’arte tradition, does not employ Rabelaisian vulgarity). In this respect, the treatment of the play’s comedy seems related to the adaptation’s approach to both the form and setting of the text: the occasionally interspersed rhyming couplets (Molière composed the play in rhymed alexandrine couplets) and the unmentioned but vaguely intuitive setting “France” feel vestigial, as if these elements stood in the way of staging a contemporary and sufficiently mordant satire, but were too near the heart of the play to be jettisoned. But, of course, satire is essentially determinate, attacking specifics, and the production’s strength lies in its embrace of the tragic, the subversive, and the menacing elements of the play (announced from the beginning, with the program’s declaration that “if you sat in this seat 350 years ago, you would be risking excommunication and arrest”). In this respect the sheer muscular power of this Tartuffe is somewhat tamed by its aimlessness as satire. These quibbles aside, though, the production’s emphasis on the threat of the tragic works exceedingly well as pure spectacle—especially given the captivating performances of Epp, Gomez, Klingaman and Carley. What makes Serrand’s production enthralling is just this, the brilliantly played, gradual permeation of farcical comedy with a grimmer menace.

The Berkeley Rep’s production of Tartuffe, directed by Dominique Serrand, is playing until April 12. Call or visit their website for more information: (510) 647-2900;