Moliere, Adapted by David Ball
A 350-year-old farce about blind, religious fanaticism and the corruption of religious leaders, Moliere’s Tartuffe is one of the those beloved, funny, and biting classics that most avid theatre-goers have seen at least once in their careers as audience members. However, it is doubtful any of us has seen quite as dark, evil-lurking, yet still hilarious version as the adaption by David Ball now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. While slapstick, knee-slapping comedy moments emerge periodically, this dark Tartuffe quickly sheds its rhymed-couplet traditions to employ more modern-sounding dialogue to allow obvious parallels to drawn to 21st-Century Church scandals, local proclamations by Archbishops about so-called morality, and the logic-blind followers of conservative religion leaders all around the world.
A local patrician, Orgon, has had a Damascus-moment at his local church by witnessing the pious prayers of a stranger, Tartuffe -- so much so that Orgon invites him to live in his home, begins to place all Tartuffe’s wishes and comforts above those of his own family, and eventually deeds all his worldly goods and even his own daughter to this ‘holy man.’ Reasoned words of logic by his brother-in-law Cleante, pleas by his children and servants, and raised eyebrows and later laments and threats by his own wife only solidify the black-clad, never-smiling Orgon to become more adamant that his adored Tartuffe is the only worthy, honest person among his household. Everyone but Orgon, including us as audience, is well aware that Tartuffe is a slithering, smirking puppet master full of contempt for his benefactor and is orchestrating a full-take over of Orgon’s wealth and wife. All of this takes place in the family’s lofty, cathedral-like residence (designed by Dominque Serrand and Tom Buderwitz) where religious music suddenly is heard from afar; where incense, prayer rugs, chalices, and crosses accompany Tartuffe’s daily moves; and where devilish priest-like attendants shadow ‘his excellency’s’ every turn.
Stephen Epp’s Tartuffe is a villain worthy of any Shakespeare (or even Disney) tale who realizes everyone but Orgon knows his true intents and who openly flaunts his evil with his long, licking tongue on wine cup’s edge; his not-too-subtle touches on the master’s wife’s breast; and his mocking pantomimes of prayer and devotions. As the overly adoring Orgon, Luverne Seifert swoons and weeps when near Tartuffe, but never sways from his stern, ‘I am right’ face of marble when with his family.
So is there humor in this Moliere? But of course there is, and never more so does comic relief emerge than in the outstanding performance of Suzanne Warmanen as the head servant Dorine. She is the comic and honest counter to Mr. Epp’s Tartuffe as she constantly plots how to save her poor household from the inevitable demise. She romps, rants, and literally rolls across the entire stage as she brazenly confronts her master and his stupidity. Her manipulating the resolution of a lover’s quarrel between Orlon’s daughter Mariane (Lenne Klingaman) and her intended (Christopher Carley) becomes a triadic dance of hilarity as all three play the moment to the hilt. Overall, her heart-felt and funny orchestrations to right all the wrongs around her are a perfect balance for those of Tartuffe as he determinedly ensures his evil intentions succeed on all counts.
Evil is eventually wrung out of the priestly robes of this almighty Tartuffe through a wife’s ingenuous plan and then through the higher, secular wisdom of an unseen ruler. But even as this farce comes to an end, a final smirking glance at the audience by the now-prisoner Tartuffe and a closing barricading of the cathedral-like doors by this ravaged family leaves us with a sinking feeling that this is really not the end. Ball’s adaptation clearly underscores that the Tartuffes in our world are as real and enduring as the 350-year-and-counting Tartuffe of Moliere.