Berkeley Rep, and the talented actor, writer and director Steven Epp, have been enjoying a 20-year love fest, resulting in productions including “The Green Bird” (2000), Molière’s “The Miser” (2006) and “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” (2012), and “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” (2014).
In the latest work in the collaboration, Molière’s “Tartuffe,” director Dominique Serrand presents a serious take on the moral tale of the wealthy Orgon (Luverne Seifert), who falls under the sway of the counterfeit man of God, Tartuffe (gifted Steven Epp). First presented in 1664 at the Palace of Versailles, “Tartuffe” was found so offensive to religion that the Archbishop of Paris threatened excommunication for anyone who watched, acted or even read the play. And it still packs an anti-religious punch.
Yet, much of Molière’s incisive and acerbic take on the Catholic Church is blunted in this production by the penetrating portrayal of Tartuffe by Steven Epp. Epp’s character is evil and vile, not merely hypocritical and sly. One wonders how Orgon could not see through this creep when Tartuffe and two silent servants (neat Nathan Keepers and Todd Pivetti) slither about the stage like snakes in the Garden of Eden. Since the laughs are purposely minimized here, Orgon is not presented as an exaggerated buffoon, which would have made his trust in Tartuffe more believable and his comeuppance more satisfying.
However, Tartuffe fools neither the rest of Orgon’s family nor the audience. Orgon’s servants, always the savviest members of Molière’s casts, detest Tartuffe. Servant Dorine (nice work by Suzanne Warmanen) gives the liveliest denouncement of the manipulative menace, but Orgon will have none of it. In fact, the greater the family’s opposition to Tartuffe, the more fervent is Orgon’s worship of him. Orgon announces that he will marry Tartuffe to his daughter Mariane (enjoyable portrayal by Lenne Klingaman) despite her engagement to Valère (funny Christopher Carey) in a flower-patterned suit. Finally, the family traps Tartuffe into seducing Orgon’s wife, Elmire (nicely acted by Sofia Jean Gomez) in an excellently choreographed scene of debauchery.
For more than 300 years, Molière’s comedies have been entertaining audiences around the world. Although some of his characters were derived from the commedia dell’arte tradition, Molière’s special talent was his ability to satirize the hypocrisy of the upper classes. The witty satire and the truth beneath it, accompanied by some silliness, generally make Molière’s work pleasurable and timeless. Yet, it seems difficult for Epp and his companies (first the Theatre de la Jeune Lune company, and now the Moving Company) to strike the balance between slapstick and satire.
In 2012, I found Molière’s biting wit to be unfortunately absent in Berkeley Rep’s “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” Instead, the play, as adapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes, seemed a very broad farce.
“Tartuffe,” on the other hand, exhibits little humor and no farce, leaving a somber, dark play without the signature Molière wit that reveals underlying truths. Nevertheless, it’s a novel, strong production with a talented cast.
“Tartuffe” is a co-production with South Coast Repertory and Shakespeare Theatre Company and runs through April 12, 2015. Check Berkeley Rep for tickets, extended performance dates and information.
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