You don't need to be a scholar of theater to have heard of Tartuffe, or its acclaimed playwright Molière. Molière, like Shakespeare before him, was both an actor and playwright and has come to be considered one of the great comedy writers of Western literature his other famous works being The Misanthrope and The Miser, though there are dozens more. Berkeley Rep presented a hilarious production of one of his lighter comedies, A Doctor In Spite of Himself, back in 2012, and this season they're tackling the much darker Tartuffe with the same talented lead actor, Steven Epp.
Epp and his Minneapolis-based theater group The Moving Company, co-founded by director Dominique Serrand who also directs this production, have a long and fruitful history of collaboration with Berkeley Rep that goes back 20 years. And with this version of Tartuffe (skillfully adapted by David Ball) Epp and Serrand bring us what could be a modern definitive production of Moliere's cutting satire of Catholic hypocrisy in the age of King Louis XIV. The play is so celebrated in France that the word tartuffe is now part of the language, meaning a hypocrite particularly of the moral or religious sort.
This take on Tartuffe opens with a half-lit stage, and we're introduced to several members of the Orgon family and its servant staff, along with the staunch and angry Madame Pernelle, mother of the lord of the manor, Orgon (Luverne Seifert), who's woken everyone up in the middle of the night to storm off in a huff. Through the first several scenes we are introduced to the presence of a Monsieur Tartuffe (played by Epp) only through others' impressions of him, as he remains off-stage. A guest in the house, he's come to be a sort of spiritual advisor to Orgon who believes him to be the holiest man he's ever met meanwhile the servants, Orgon's children, and his wife all see Tartuffe for what he is: an opportunist and imposter with probably ill intentions.
What follows is a farce in the traditional sense though it has far fewer farcical elements than one might associate with modern farce, and this is far more serious in tone than many productions that have preceded it. Orgon's maid, Dorine (the marvelous and funny Suzanne Warmanen) leads the charge to expose Tartuffe after Orgon reveals that he wants to give his daughter's hand in marriage to him. Orgon's wife, Elmire (Sofia Jean Gomez), who's engaged in a lengthy flirtation with Tartuffe, joins in the cause after her stepson, Damis (played with great comic rage by Brian Hostenske) gets disowned trying to tell his father the truth. And as the threatened lovers, daughter Mariane and fiancé Valere, actors Lenne Klingaman and Christopher Carley get to do some of the show's most absurd and hilarious comic work as they cope with the news that their marriage may be at stake.
In attempting to show the absurdity of the French nobility's claims to piousness, and the ridiculousness of Catholic mores, Molière paints a cunning picture of the villain Tartuffe, which Epp handles brilliantly with both broad, strutting arrogance and moments of comic "breaking." And the production winds to its unpredictable conclusion with many stirring vignettes by director Serrand framed by a stark, church-like set by Serrand and Tom Buderwitz. Also notable: The modern-meets-Versailles costumes by Sonya Berlovitz, which include a signature "costume malfunction" nipple tear-away panel for the randy Tartuffe.
While Serrand could have played more for laughs with Molière's famous material, Ball's adaptation and the direction of this production complete with dramatic choral soundtrack at key moments aims to skewer religiosity for a modern mind, and does so with a sharper sword. While it's hard to relate to a moment in time when daughters were chattel and noblemen sought communion with God above all else, it is easy in this production to fall into the rhythms of Molière's poetry, and to appreciate the wit of his twisting story of deceit and comeuppance. And despite the age of the material, this Tartuffe feels as fresh and enjoyable a night of theater as any piece from the last century, just with a whole lot more God thrown in.
Tartuffe plays through April 12 at Berkeley Rep. Get tickets here, and remember to seek out the under 30 discount if you are indeed under 30.