Regional Theater Review: TARTUFFE (South Coast Rep)

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by Tony Frankel on June 2, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

A BLASPHEMOUS BLAST

Luverne Seifert, Gregory Linington, Lenne Klingaman, Cate Scott Campbell, Becca Lustgarten, Callie Prendiville and Suzanne Warmanen in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's TartuffeAfter Dominique Serrand’s jaw-droppingly juicy and insanely inventive production of Molière’s Tartuffe, a South Coast Rep patron was heard to say, “Well, I don’t know if I can honestly recommend it.” Then she looked around cautiously and leaned towards her companion with, “It’s unlike any Tartuffe I’ve ever seen.” Then a whisper. “It’s so blasphemous.” Well, those two reasons are exactly why this co-production with Berkeley Rep and Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. is a must-see. Informed by a 17th-century aesthetic, Serrand’s cutting-edge interpretation seems to be thumbing its nose at the religious censors who effectively banned Molière’s 1664 comic masterpiece for five years.

Lenne Klingaman, Suzanne Warmanen and Christopher Carley in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's TartuffeIn a luxurious manse in 1660’s France, everyone but Orgon (Luverne Seifert), the head of the household, and his mother Madame Pernelle (Michael Manuel) are aware that Tartuffe (Steven Epp) is a religious impostor. A vagrant prior to being taken in by Orgon, Tartuffe has hypnotized Orgon by promoting piety when he actually seeks to profit by appropriating everything in Orgon’s household–the wine, the food, his wife Elmire (Cate Scott Campbell), and his daughter Mariane (Lenne Klingaman), who is engaged to her true love, Valère (Christopher Carley). Along with the housemaid, Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen), and Orgon’s impetuous son Damis (Brian Hostenske), the family plans to trap Tartuffe and his weaselly servants Laurent (Nathan Keepers) and Pascal (Nick Slimmer) before Orgon signs over his entire fortune to Tartuffe.

Nathan Keepers, Steven Epp, Nick Slimmer, Luverne Seifert and Brian Hostenske in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's Tartuffe David Ball’s 1998 adaptation veers from the rhyming couplets in most versions, going for a contemporary feel that is wholly refreshing (rhyming passages still make an appearance in certain scenes). The speech from Cléante (Gregory Linington), Orgon’s brother-in-law, about Tartuffe being the opposite of a sincere religious devotee is as straightforward and accessible as I’ve ever heard: “They sigh to heaven, they sob sacred tears, they espy wrong in all you do and demonize people they just don’t happen to like. However holy you are, their way is holier. What ever you say, they say it holier…they believe in nothing so there is nothing they will not do. Treachery, vengeance, and larceny are their stock in trade.”

Nathan Keepers, James MacEwan, Steven Epp, Nick Slimmer, Michael Manuel and Brian Hostenske in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's TartuffeThere is no doubt why this accusation about religious zealots put Molière in hot water, but had the censors seen the production at hand, everyone involved would have been burned at the stake for heresy. Serrand, co-artistic director of Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Tony-winner for Best Regional Theater), creates Theater with a capitol “T.” Physical comedy can take center stage, as proved by the flitting young lovers, and Warmanen’s loquacious Dorine is a riot, but Epp’s threatening, passive-aggressive, rock-star Tartuffe and his Cabaret-Emcee servants turn what normally are silly seduction scenes into unsettling, devastating, and shocking displays of physical and spiritual molestation.

I’m rather certain Molière would be proud.

Cate Scott Campbell and Steven Epp in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's Tartuffe

photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Suzanne Warmanen and Cate Scott Campbell in South Coast Repertory's TARTUFFETartuffe
a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre
and D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company
South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on June 8, 2014
for tickets, call (714) 708-5555
or visit www.SCR.org

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