Tartuffe, Molière’s timeless tragicomedy about religion, hypocrisy, and relationship distortion, was censored after a single performance in 1664. When the archbishop of Paris condemned Molière’s portrayal of religion, King Louis XIV acquiesced to the Roman Catholic Church and publicly banned Tartuffe. The seductive muddle of the title character’s benevolent deception led a second version to also be banned in 1667, and it wasn’t until 1669 that a third version of Tartuffe was finally published and openly performed to great success. Happily, 350 years later at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the audience is free to experience Tartuffe’s subjective truth in all its dark glory.
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Career criminal Tartuffe (played by veteran stage actor Steven Epp) deceives wealthy a French citizen, Orgon (Luverne Seifert), with a smooth tongue and faux piety. Orgon invites Tartuffe into his household—despite warnings from family members and servants—and blindly defends Tartuffe even as his guest vies for control of his wife, daughter, home, and fortune.
Tartuffe, which runs till April 12, opens in medias res as Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle (Michael Manuel), scolds the family with hypnotic sarcasm. Soon, character after character comes onstage to attempt to convince Orgon of Tartuffe’s treachery, lust, and lies. This character interplay, which unspools without scene breaks until intermission, is at the core of Tartuffe. The actors feed off this urgency, entering and exiting the stage in a seamless, overlapping flow, while passing time is established through sublime lighting and even bombastic sound effects for the thunderstorm climax.
Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre proves a suitably intimate space for the production, utilizing a single beautiful set of high walls, expensive furnishings, and tall double entryway doors. The design conveys the wealth and fortune of Orgon’s family, estate, and class but does not distract from the action onstage. Blocking makes full use of the stage space, right up to the edges, yet the actors’ movements feel natural and energetic.
Tartuffe himself does not appear until more than a half hour into the performance. The role is in the hands of a master actor. Epp’s portrayal is captivating and intensely physical. Balanced direction by Dominique Serrand of David Ball’s adaption highlights the arguments between Orgon and his brother-in-law, Cleante (Gregory Linington), and with his witty maid, Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen). Seifert’s transformative portrayal of Orgon almost steals the show. Another memorable moment is the playfully charged lover’s quarrel between Orgon’s daughter Mariane and her fiancé, Valere. The actors bubble with flirtatious energy yet remain tender and vulnerable. Even Tartuffe’s two subordinates in crime, including the menacing and loyal Laurent (Nathan Keepers), act in scene without speaking until a turnabout scene in the performance’s final third.
Molière’s clever couplets hearten the raging dialogue and witty banter, speeding the production’s two hours and twenty minutes to a memorable final scene, where, despite the archbishop’s criticism in 1664, immorality is presented alongside its consequences. Even today Tartuffe is still a cutting reflection on hubris.
Tartuffe, a co-production between the Berkeley Repertory, South Coast Repertory, and Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, and will be performed until Sunday, April 12. Tickets and more information can be found at www.berkeleyrep.org