A Contemporary Take on the Villainous ‘Tartuffe’

Suzanne Warmanen as Dorine and ensemble member Stepha nie Schmalzle in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe , adapted by David Ball, directed by Dominique Serrand. | Scott Suchman

When directors and designers come face to face with the daunting task of staging a piece of classical theatre—a “Hamlet,” or a “Lear,” the world of Falstaff or the Spanish classics, or a Moliere—the temptation, even the urge to contemporize, to make relevant a work from the past is often irresistible.

That’s certainly almost an imperative at work in the production of “Tartuffe,” Moliere’s most famous, and perhaps most difficult, play now at the Shakespeare Theater Company.

Ostensibly in the lists as a comedy—as are all of the 17th century playwrights works—“Tartuffe,” more than most has its dark sides, it’s frustrating, “good” people behaving idiotically. And it’s “bad” people behaving far worse than you might image. If Tartuffe, the most nearly savage of Moliere’s villains in his avarice, his heartless manipulations and will to power, is a monster, then Orgon, the good and disturbingly pious man is almost his equal as Tartuffe’s enabler. He’s a monster of thick-headedness pinned to his own sense of wisdom and authority that is tyrannical to a fault.

“Tartuffe” has been done often at the regional theater level, but never by the Washington Shakespeare company, and strictly speaking this is a co-production with South Coast Repertory and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed and designed by Dominique Serrand, who is co-artistic director of “The Moving Company.”

This production has already been staged elsewhere in California at Berkeley Rep, for one, where it received a lot of critical acclaim. Contemporary relevance is the goal here, but what often happens in high concept productions of the classics is a kind of tug-of-war between style over substance. This “Tartuffe,” it seems to me, is a kind of a draw, wherein the style of the play, a barrage of contradictory intentions, is trying to become the substance of the play.

“Tartuffe” is about a lecherous, primal and almost gifted grafter, who sets his sights on the wealthy Orgon, the very proud and pious head of a family that includes servants, a marriageable daughter, his younger (and smarter) and beautiful wife, a brother, and sundry others. Tartuffe pretends to be the most pious of pious men, even more than Orgon himself, pretending to want nothing while trying to take everything. Orgon, smitten hopelessly with Tartuffe, promises him his daughter, his money, his house, all except his wife Elmire, whom Tartuffe pursues relentless and with oily passion.

Proceedings proceed to the brink of disaster as Orgon is on the verge of losing his daughter, his house and his wealth.

Serrand has approached this material as a kind of horror story, focusing on religious fanaticism, social tyranny and hypocrisy, where people are always on the move, posing or re-arranging themselves or disappearing upstairs or downstage. There is a lot to like in his approach—the slapstick set pieces in the first act are loud little mini-silent movies in their comedic effects.

But often, this production seems to trying to have its cake and save it for a rainy day. It starts out in rhyming intonations, then drops into more modern speech with occasional bouts of rhyming. There seems to be no particularly good reason to do this.

It’s difficult to escape Moliere’s world of 1643, except of course for the fact that Moliere deals in archetypes—his plays are about and satirize quack doctors, misers, meddling heads of families, misanthropes, frauds, tyrants and religious zealots. They are with us always, and are quite easily recognized. Moliere’s particular gift was one of dexterity in the absolutist world of Louis XIV—he could attack religious zealotry, but not the church, he could satirize social tyranny, but not the king.

Steven Epp as Tartuffe is a self-assured rat—he’s sexy, confident and sly—trying to seduce Ermine, he flips open a breast plate to bare his chest, much like an eager knight of old popping a cod piece. He’s the kind of religious tyrant who talks about blasphemy even while being casually blasphemous. In one of the more chilling lines, he says to Elmire while trying to straddle her: “I can consecrate any evil I do.” Sofias Jean Gomez, who was the sprite Ariel in “The Tempest” at STC last year, makes a temptation out of Elmire for almost any man, even in her deception, she never stoops to pretending to be stupid.

The Orgon house is a curious affair—bright and full of light, it resembles the abode of a Calvinist trying to be stylish.

Tartuffe always has at his side, or in corners or passageways two assistants, oily, creepy men who catch small birds and snuff them out just to show that they can. There is in this house always a threat, of spying, of being caught, of any horrible thing at all. This may echo our own age of no privacy whatsoever.

You can see just how carefully Moliere had to tread by the way he ends things. Orgon and his family are saved by the king, or his agent, who recognizes Tartuffe for what he is. I saw one production—years ago at Arena Stage— in which the king arrived by helicopter in all his Sun King glory to save.

Serrand adds his own touch by having Tartuffe marched off whipped and carrying a cross, perhaps smiling. Could it be that Tartuffe has been Tartuffed?

The play, in fact, ends in a confusion of panic. Too much has happened for the day (if not the play) to be saved.

(“Tartuffe” runs at Sidney Harman Hall through July 4.)

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