Poison is a person in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's stylish revival of Molière's classic 1664 satirical comedy, Tartuffe.
Tartuffe arrives onstage like a silvery-snake-cum-Paris-fashion-model as director Dominique Serrand sculpts a sleek and brilliantly lit, costumed, and designed rendition. Cast with an ear to discordant strains and partnering with Steven Epp, co-artistic director with Serrand of the Minneapolis-based Moving Company, the story of a pious charlatan who takes advantage of a wealthy man and his family is two and a half hours of beautiful brutality.
Although Molière's 45-minute Act II feels like a diminutive package — perhaps its ribbon was tied too quickly, leaving the impression of a tiny knot rather than a substantial bow — this Tartuffe is a stunner and, especially in the first half, the production is thick with rewards.
The play begins with a family in turmoil. Tartuffe's pious poison has rendered its insidious effect: Wealthy patriarch Orgon (Luverne Seifert) has promised his entire fortune and his boisterous daughter, Mariane (Lenne Klingaman), to Tartuffe. Mariane was to marry the earnest Valere (Christopher Carley), and when Orgon's hot-headed son Damis (Brian Hostenske) learns of the betrayal, he spirals into frenzied efforts to oust the invader.
Meanwhile, Tartuffe's advances toward Orgon's icy-smart wife, Elmire (Sofia Jean Gomez), grow increasingly blatant but are missed entirely by Orgon, so dazzled is he by Tartuffe's chicanery. Further twisting the household tangle with ritualistic rope lashings, holy water washings, and the taking of communion, Tartuffe and his two “pretty boys” (Nathan Keepers, Todd Pivetti) exude religious flamboyance and a perfume-like sexuality.
Molière's skill is commanding in this salty-sour-sweet equation of a farce. A supremely rational brother-in-law, Cleante (Gregory Linington), and practical, outspoken servant, Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen), counter and balance the play's blatant bad-boys-everywhere theme.
But neither shouts nor sermons can persuade Orgon of Tartuffe's duplicitousness, so Elmire turns to deceit. Inviting Tartuffe into her private chambers — with Orgon hiding under a table at her insistence — the charlatan reveals his true colors in a seduction. Orgon denounces Tartuffe, only to have the tide turn as Tartuffe rightly insists he is the owner of the home and the family must leave. A secret document that Orgon gave Tartuffe threatens to put Orgon in prison as well. In a tidy conclusion — rewritten by Molière after the original Tartuffe-takes-all ending caused death threats and the banning of the play — the hardly-mentioned-before king sees through Tartuffe's veil, Tartuffe is arrested, and, in this production, justice and just-rewards prevail as Tartuffe is hauled off bearing a large, wooden cross on his back.
Epp plays the title role with the same springy physicality that marked his previous appearances at the Rep (The Miser, Figaro, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and more). David Ball's English-language adaptation suits Epp's artful articulations, which slide fluidly from clip to drawl to salacious serenade.
Seifert's Orgon is robust enough, although less militarism in a scene with his daughter might have set him up as a more sympathetic victim — and added bitterness at the close would have weighted his wispy, deflated-balloon portrayal at the end.
Of the rest of the cast — all solid performers — Warmanen as the mouthy housemaid had a brass-ring-worthy turn. Hilarious, touching, tender, tough, terrified, and with perfect timing — Warmanen spun a simple character into glorious multidimensionality.
There's no way to review a Serrand production without mentioning the sets, lights, and costumes. His work with scenic designer Tom Buderwitz in this collaboration between Berkeley Rep, South Coast Repertory, and Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company is an appreciation of place. The cream-with-gray-toned entryway of a grand house serves its purpose magically. Restricting all the action to one setting — transforming the environment by changing the people in it, not by moving walls — we experience the stifling, oppressive presence of Tartuffe. We're trapped, just as the family is trapped.
Marcus Dilliard's lighting eases between cues imperceptibly and creates a powerful, haunting understory, like a bad idea that gradually casts shadows or arduous realizations that are only illuminated with protracted thought.
A puffy, cerulean dress worn by Elmire appears like a glacier and is just one of Sonya Berlovitz's magical creations. Epp triumphantly stomps upon it, Gomez lays on the ground and seductively sinks into its airy waves, giving a glimpse underneath its wide radius in an erotic suggestion — a Berlovitz costume is far more than dressing.
And it's not a one-trick act because the visual feast continues: Perfectly nuanced, creamy dressing gowns and servants' attire suggest vulnerability, Mariane's blood-red tule overskirt marks her attempt at suicide, Orgon's slashed-sleeves black overcoat implies secret folds containing lies, the high-heels-and-frost-blue tunic combo worn by Tartuffe's servants add pretense, and more.
Too bad Serrand couldn't also throw in time travel. It would be a trip to go back in time to a period 350 years ago, when instead of the cheers and “That's right!” of a liberal-minded Bay Area audience greeting every slam against the church and its leaders, there would be gasps, exclamations of shock and dismay, or even a touch of real-life scandal.