Timely Hypocrisy, Pomposity, Comedy

By Carol Benet
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area theater
Weeks starting April 5, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 49

BERKELEY—Molière’s satirical comedy “Tartuffe,” first performed in 1664, remains one of the most timely scripts ever written despite the vast time gap since it appeared, it. In it, Molière makes fun of excessive religiosity, yet this new interpretation at Berkeley Rep by Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp, who plays Tartuffe, is both hilarious and scary. Scary because the effect of religious extremism is so frightening.

Orgon (Luverne Seifert) is a domineering bourgeois husband and father who happens to have been bitten by the super-religious bug. The first crisis in his family is that he demands that his daughter Mariane (Lenne Klingaman) marry the older fop Tartuffe rather than her beloved Valere (Christopher Carley). Mariane’s faithful servant Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen) does all the reasoning and arguing for her charge and what a loud-mouth she is. She, like all of the servants in Molière, is the wisest person on stage. She is also one of the funniest.

The next crisis involves Orgon’s son Damis, played expertly by the understudy Benjamin Ismail, who has also disobeyed his father. Then comes Tartuffe (Steven Epp), the super arrogant, super pious suitor to Mariane. He and his two henchmen take over the house, one that has been decorated like the inside of a church with it’s high windows and religious holy water font. Take over is a mild term for how Tartuffe has manipulated Orgon and by the end of the play all of the latter’s possessions now belong to this slippery and bigoted fake.

The scenes with the false religious ceremonies, including incense, tinkling bells, choral music, and even worse – crucifixes, are amplified by Tartuffe’s costumes that look like they come out of a chic Buddhist monastery reminiscent of David Mitchell’s far-fetched books. These scenes with all the accoutrements of devotion are creepy and omnipresent in many religious orders. Tartuffe and his men pray on rugs facing in one direction, make hand signals and motions of genuflecting that Orgon sometimes imitates during his pig-headed spiritual devotions.

In the second act, the stage comes alive when Orgon’s wife Elmire seduces Tartuffe in order to show Orgon that Tartuffe is nothing but a snake. (Elmire is played by a sexy Sofia Jean Gomez with hair so short and blond that it must have been patterned after Robin Wright’s in “House of Cards.”) At this point, the plot takes a nose-dive. Not until the very end does Molière do what the French call a “Volte Face,” that the plot really reverses itself. In the playwright’s obeisance to the reigning King Louis XIV (The Sun King), he concludes with an act signaling the wisdom of the state, and therefore the king.

Despite this happy ending, the play was written and is still re-written and re-played because it is a critique, not only of religion but of state dominance. And that is why it remains timeless.

Try to see this excellent 2 hour, 40 minute play with one intermission at the Berkeley Rep, a theater that has welcomed Steven Epp and director Dominique Serrand several times in the past. “Tartuffe” is a co-production of the South Coast Repertory and The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. It is worth getting over there to see it.

Molière’s “Tartuffe” at the Berkeley Rep. Closes Sunday night April 12. For info: (510) 845-4700, or go online.
© Carol Benet 2015
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.

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