UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) is currently presenting a glamorous and good-humored version of Tartuffe by the French genius Molière. First produced in 1664, Tartuffe is the age-old story about the wealthy buffoon Orgon, who falls under the sway of the phony and hypocritical ‘man of God’ Tartuffe. TDPS wisely decided to use poet Richard Wilbur’s dazzling and delightful 1963 English translation of Tartuffe in rhymed couplets.
I’m always impressed with the 439-seat Zellerbach Playhouse with its professional-level stage and sets. Before the actors appear on stage, take a moment to appreciate the very detailed and sophisticated set of the back of Orgon’s California-looking two-story house and garden, (Annie Smart, scenic designer). We can’t see the swimming pool, but at one point we can hear it (Emily Fassler, sound designer). The California theme continues throughout the play, as the students have added modern touches to the costumes (Wendy Sparks, costume designer) and a bit of the dialogue. The large-screen TV complete with videos, and an Alexa that is given instructions during the play, add to the contemporary feel (Xiaofei Deng, video designer). Director Domenique Lozano keeps the plot moving swiftly in this comedic classic.
The plot of Tartuffe involves the infatuation of the rich fool Orgon (Drew Woodson) with the deceptive piety of Tartuffe (Shea Nolan), who now lives in Orgon’s house, much to the opposition of Orgon’s family. The family members are Orgon’s second wife, Elmire (Amalia Sgoumpopoulou), his son Damis (Stefan Wayne), his daughter Mariane (Diana Alvarado), Mariane’s fiancé Valère (Devin Guilfoyle) and Cleanté, Orgon’s brother-in-law (David Truong).
Savvy servant Dorine (nice work by Claire Pearson) gives the liveliest denouncement of the manipulative menace Tartuffe, but Orgon’s mind is set, despite the facts in front of him. The greater the family’s opposition to Tartuffe, the more fervent is Orgon’s worship of him. When Orgon announces that he will marry Tartuffe to his daughter, the family’s antagonism goes into high gear. The family traps Tartuffe into seducing Orgon’s wife, Elmire. But Orgon has already deeded his house to Tartuffe. What will happen next?
I don’t envy the acting students who have to deal with the nervous excitement of opening night jitters. Despite that, the acting was generally effective. I do wish, however, that some of the actors, especially those who spoke from the rear of the stage, had projected their voices more loudly. I trust that such glitches in the production will be evened out in future performances.
The witty satire and the universal truths beneath it, accompanied by some silliness, always make Molière’s work pleasurable and timeless. And, although the Archbishop of Paris banned Tartuffe as heretical more than 300 years ago, it is now suitable for all members of the family. It would be an ideal way to introduce teenagers and ‘tweenagers’ to the theater. The comedy does run for two hours and 15 minutes (including one 10-minute intermission), so it might be too long for younger audiences.
Tartuffe runs through Nov. 18. Performances are at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC campus, to the rear of Zellerbach Hall on Spieker Plaza, across from Alumni House and Haas Pavilion (near the corner of Bancroft and Dana streets). Tickets are on sale through the TDPS Box Office or at the door, and cost $13 to $20.