It’s a familiar story: A charismatic figure rises to power by making others feel sinful and and in need of salvation. Then, inevitably, the world finds out that this moral leader is just an opportunist, guilty of far worse than whatever he was denouncing. But in this case we’re not talking about a televangelist or member of Congress. Molière wrote the bitingly satirical Tartuffe back in 1664, and his portrayal of sanctimonious hypocrisy struck such a nerve that the play was immediately banned. The Archbishop of Paris even decreed that anyone who performed, watched or read Tartuffe would be excommunicated.
Nowadays, of course, the comedy is a venerated classic, and nobody’s going to excommunicate Berkeley Repertory Theatre for presenting Tartuffe. But those familiar with the play or Molière’s work in general might be shocked by how grim this particular production is.
Berkeley Rep relies on a handful of favorite out-of-town actors and directors who return again and again, and high on that list is comedic actor Steven Epp, of Minneapolis’ now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Epp has starred in five productions at Berkeley Rep over the years, from Don Juan Giovanni in 1994 to Accidental Death of an Anarchist a year ago, and now he’s back for a sixth. This production also brings back Dominique Serrand, a cofounder of Jeune Lune and now co-artistic director with Epp of the Moving Company (also based in Minneapolis). Serrand directed some of Epp’s most finely crafted shows at the Rep, including Figaro and The Miser. This is their third production of Tartuffe over the years (albeit their first in the Bay Area), and this time they’re focusing on how dark and disturbing the story really is.
The wealthy Orgon (a loud and bullheaded Luverne Seifert) has become enthralled with the supposed holy man Tartuffe (Epp). Orgon doesn't care that his wife is ill; he doesn't care whether he’s promised to marry his daughter to her true love; he cares for nothing but Tartuffe, hanging on his every word and giving him everything without the huckster even having to ask for it. Meanwhile, Orgon's entire family is miserable, knowing Tartuffe for the gluttonous, lustful fraud he is and watching helplessly as he tries to seduce Orgon’s beautiful young wife.
Serrand’s staging is somber and deliberate, which sometimes adds resonance to the proceedings and at other times simply feels slow. It’s all set in a grand hall by Serrand and Tom Buderwitz, with high, elegant walls and a Spartan scarcity of furnishings. Corinne Carrillo’s sound design is full of austere church music.
This severe tone sometimes pays off, especially in scenes where we witness Sofia Jean Gomez’s mounting sense of violation as the formidable wife Elmire, who enjoys toying with Tartuffe but is furious at her unseeing husband for letting things go too far. At other times this sobriety seems at odds with the goofiness of the material, delivered in playfully rhyming dialogue (wittily translated in David Ball’s saucy adaptation). Both Seifert’s Orgon and Suzanne Warmanen’s Dorine—the outspoken housemaid whose truthful mockery infuriates the master of the house —are given to bellowing and outsize gestures, as if trying to fill the cavernous room singlehandedly. Brian Hostenske’s impotent rage fizzles as Orgon’s volatile son, who has little to do in the play besides vent his frustration.
Some of the humor works beautifully. Orgon means to marry his daughter Mariane to Tartuffe, much to everyone’s dismay. There’s a hilarious scene between Lenne Klingaman’s squeakingly girlish Mariane and Christopher Carley as her high-strung true love, Valere, in which they passive-aggressively berate each other for going along with the plan, each insisting the other one doesn't care. It’s made all the funnier by Valere’s ludicrous flower-print outfit, one of many delightful costumes by Sonya Berlovitz.
Elmire’s brother Cleante (a stoic Gregory Linington) serves as the voice of reason, equally at home in darkness or frivolity. But the comedic impact of a mustachioed and manly-voiced Michael Manuel as Orgon’s pious mother is muted by the fact that her contemptuous disapproval is what first establishes the oppressive atmosphere of despair.
First appearing a full 50 minutes into the two and a half hour play, Epp is a marvelously creepy Tartuffe. He's prone to inappropriate caresses (of people in general, not just Elmire) and writhing around on the floor as a bizarre form of seduction. His contemptuously swaggering henchman Laurent (Nathan Keepers) is always looming and leering in Tartuffe's vicinity, even during the most private moments, which makes the proceedings all the more sinister.
The religious imagery is laid on thick throughout; Tartuffe strikes a crucifixion pose at the drop of a hat. There are times when the significance of some of these extra touches isn't entirely clear, particularly toward the end. There are devilish delights aplenty in this production; the only sin is that at times they seem to clash with each other as much as the family does.
Tartuffe runs through April 12, 2015 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.