Unholy intentions: Steven Epp as Tartuffe, Sofia Jean Gomez as Elmire, Nathan Keepers as Tartuffe's aide
Photos by Kevin Berne
Every successful satire has teeth, though most often they're employed lightly, nipping at common foibles and quirks of character. Moliere's Tartuffe, in the hands of Berkeley Rep, has fangs, fiercely tearing into greed and cruelty and lust that are thinly disguised by appearances of piety.
That's probably what France's greatest playwright intended, since productions of Tartuffe were banned soon after its debut in 1664 because of protests by high-ranking churchmen. It returned to the stage five years later, heavily revised, and has remained a staple of world theater ever since, usually drawing peals of laughter. The revisions apparently made clear that Moliere's target was the hypocritical use of religion, not religion itself.
The Berkeley staging delivers its share of hilarity, too, but the qualities that make it memorable are dramatic and erotic, including one scene that descends from seductive comedy to vicious rape. I'm not offended by simulated sex on stage, and my tastes in theater lean heavily toward the intense, but the scene made me cringe. That's probably just what director Dominique Serrand intended.
Serrand's players in that scene are Steven Epp, Sofia Jean Gomez and Nathan Keepers. Epp is the amoral Tartuffe: snakelike in his movements, sinister in his smirks, crafty in his speech; Gomez is Elmire, the wife of the wealthy Parisian whom Tartuffe has dazzled and swindled, a shrewd woman but no match for Tartuffe's guile and strength; Keepers is one of Tartuffe's two strange and perverse flunkies, in these moments bearing a heavy wooden crucifix that presumably sanctifies his master's malevolence. All three are spellbinding.
But this is a production that allows everyone in the cast to shine, in widely varied and sometimes puzzling ways.
Is anybody happy?: Lenne Klingaman as Mariane, Suzanne Warmanen as Dorine, Christopher Carley as Valere
As Orgon, the fool who succumbs to Tartuffe's ploys, Luverne Seifert expertly projects gullibility and compassion toward the pseudo-religious conniver along with tyrannical nastiness toward his own family. Not until he hears and sees the assault on Elmire does the light of reason open Orgon's eyes.
On the comic side, Suzanne Warmanen comes close to stealing the show as Dorine, a servant who can see through a schemer and recognize a patsy when she sees one and never hesitates to say so. She's closely matched in hilarious histrionics by Lenne Klingaman as Orgon's daughter, Mariane, whose disbelief turns to fury when Orgon commands her to marry Tartuffe rather than the young man she loves.
As her love, Valere, a perky Christopher Carley brings down the house when he dashes onstage in a gush of energy and . . . radiant red lipstick, brightly rouged cheeks and a white suit festooned with red roses. The entrance is fine, but the makeup and costume won the opening night roars; they also have to make you wonder about Valere's sexuality, despite passionate clinches with Mariane.
See-through costuming also raises unnecessary questions about Mariane's brother, Damis (Brian Hostenske), who otherwise touches the right bases of helpless rage in the face of his father's misguided commands. Adding to the production's puzzles is stocky, mustached Michael Manuel in the role of Orgon's wheelchair-riding mother, with no attempt at a feminine disguise. The casting choice adds needless distraction. Manuel returns in masculine attire in the play's final moments as the king's messenger, who rights all wrongs.
Serrand and Tom Buderwitz collaborated on the magnificent setting, an opulent home whose vertical lines suggest a cathedral, furnished with a spartan table and a few chairs, one of which functions for prayerful kneeling. Sonya Berlovitz did the eye-catching costuming, in some cases suggesting giddiness and in others moving in the direction of sadomasochism.
This obviously isn't your usual Tartuffe, delivering its message via comic excess. I have no doubt, though, that it will remain longer in memory.
Tartuffe runs through April 12 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley.Tickets are $29-$79, from 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org