Every great dramatic masterpiece poses a question about a protagonist that expresses the "darker purpose," to borrow a phrase from "King Lear," of a playwright's vision.
The classic example, of course, is the mystery of Hamlet's delay. In puzzling out why the melancholy Dane doesn't capitalize on his opportunities for vengeance, the actor, the director and the audience are forced to ponder the philosophical complexities of a Shakespeare tragedy that is so much more than a traditional Elizabethan revenge drama.
In "Tartuffe," Molière's great 1664 comedy being revived in a fascinatingly sinister production at South Coast Repertory, the resonant conundrum concerns Orgon (Luverne Seifert). Why has this well-to-do patriarch, who has remarried a younger woman, allowed Tartuffe (Steven Epp), a religious figure of blatant hypocrisy, to take over his household, promising him his daughter's hand in marriage, signing over his fortune and even overlooking his sexual advances on his wife?
Orgon, we're assured at the start of the play, is no simpleton. "The master was a good man until Tartuffe slithered in," observes the irrepressible servant Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen) in David Ball's English-language adaptation. "In the last war everyone thought the best of him. He served the king well, everyone loved him, and he was the wisest of men."
Various motivations have been proposed to explain Orgon's willful blindness toward Tartuffe, including impotence, fear of encroaching mortality and even latent homosexuality. The subject has also provoked much discussion on the nature of piety, its compatibility with rationalism and the thin line separating religious fervor and charlatanism.
What's clear is that Tartuffe provides Orgon with an excuse for violently overturning the status quo of his domestic life. This holy fraud has been invited in at a moment when Orgon's authority is being taken for granted. What better way of reasserting one's tyrannical hold than by doing so under the flamboyant guise of moral and spiritual superiority?
The play begins with Orgon's mother (played in funereal drag by Michael Manuel) delivering a blistering harangue on the decadent ways of Orgon's wife and children. Of course, Madame Pernelle is also under Tartuffe's spell, leading one to consider a family basis for Orgon's zealotry.
Director Dominique Serrand, who was the artistic director and co-founder of the storied Minneapolis company Theatre de la Jeune Lune, doesn't attempt to resolve these character questions definitively. Instead, his production, a collaboration of SCR, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, maintains a productive openness while darkening the overall palette.
Seifert's Orgon is a brooding middle-aged figure who moves with the unstoppable destructiveness of a tank. It's not clear what's troubling him, but he has the distracted air of someone plagued by heavy thoughts. He makes life impossible for others, it seems, to avoid being buried alive by his own melancholy.
Epp's Tartuffe is a virtuoso of shamelessness, an impostor who thrills at his own phony performance. The more transparent his deceit, the more he delights at his ability to get away with it. Running around Orgon's house with outfits exposing his hairless chest (the costumes by Sonya Berlovitz are deconstructed 17th century enticements to lust), he combines the compulsive energy of a born entertainer, the perverse wit of a sexual opportunist and the improvisational recklessness of a pathological liar. A guiding force at Theatre de la Jeune Lune and a co-artistic director with Serrand of the Minneapolis-based Moving Company, Epp turns debauchery into a mode of daredevil performance.
Serrand, a Paris native, steers the production in the opposite direction of the sitcom, the template of so much of today's American humor. The clowning — highly stylized and choreographed with plenty of incense, religious music and penitential whipping — isn't allowed to fall into predictable rhythms, but the comedy doesn't always translate. There's a hitch in the ensemble's delivery. It's like they're telling jokes in English but thinking them out in French.
In the role of the shrewd, tell-it-like-it-is housekeeper, Warmanen is the most recognizable comic figure on the stage. She brings a cliché-destroying rawness to her portrayal, but when she attempts to ratchet up the levity, the strain shows.
Striking the right balance between commedia dell'arte types and fully drawn characters is what makes Molière so tricky to stage, especially in a theater culture with so little interest in world classics beyond the usual Shakespearean suspects. Here, minor characters, such as Christopher Carley's Valere, the true love interest of Orgon's daughter, Mariane (Lenne Klingaman), are treated more eccentrically, while Cate Scott Campbell's Elmire, Orgon's levelheaded spouse busily engaged in fending off Tartuffe's lusty onslaught, is given her realistic due.
A few of the characterizations still seem to be finding themselves. Gregory Linington's Cleante, Elmire's rational-minded brother, seems unusually recessive, as does Brian Hostenske's Damis, Orgon's ineffectual but well-intentioned son. But the sharpness is present where it counts most, and the farcical flow proceeds with scenic grace as it gains momentum in the second half.
The laughter may not be this production's strong suit, but I'm nonetheless elated that SCR is presenting such a sophisticated rendering of a Molière's comedy that understands just how close a smile is to a frown. This is the first "Tartuffe" I've seen in more than a decade. Let's hope a top-notch revival of "The Misanthrope" will arrive before another dozen middling offerings of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."