South Coast Rep’s production of Tartuffe was a deliciously complex piece of theater. Rounding out their 50th season, Moliere’s infamous 17th century satire turned from brilliantly funny to deadly serious at a moment’s notice. I went in expecting a classic sex farce, but was quickly drawn in by the deep and dark thematic overtones pulled to the surface by direction and delivery.
What worked so well comically speaking was the almost Commedia Dell’Arte style performance of the actors, who, with a few exceptions in more serious scenes, gamboled about the stage in Sonya Berlovitz’s gorgeously voluminous costumes, in the throes of pride or hysteria. 17th century dialogue, no matter how hilariously translated, can tend to drag on after a time, and the direction of the actors’ physical action ensured that I was never bored during even the slowest portions of dialogue. There was always something going on; in fact a few supporting actors had no dialogue at all, but served an excellent purpose of creating dynamic energy or comic background business that kept the show moving ever forward.
Each actor had their own distinct personality that suited the needs of the narrative, and that was what made the dialogue snap–no two characters were exactly alike, so there was no lull of similarity or repetition of tone or inflection where it wasn’t needed. For about 90% of the show, this method was very effective, adding a lot of emotive and physical humor to the already witty adapted script by David Ball. However, there were moments from a few actors that felt too extreme, overbearing in a way that distracted from the scene.
What worked in terms of the serious elements of the production were their stark juxtaposition with the comedy. The frenzy of the actors as they scampered and sprung about would suddenly stop dead, as though words held gravitational weight. The immensity of the truthful conflict beneath the fluff of the comic bits crashed into silence, a terrific accomplishment on the part of the direction.
Visually, I found the production very thought-provoking. The flagrant and often “blasphemous” use of Christian religious iconography and ritual was delightful in its outrageousness; the church, the target of Moliere’s original play, was lampooned for brazen comic effect. The set and costume designs were clearly based off the silhouettes and fads of the 17th century setting, but noticeable liberties were taken. The character of the young daughter was for example dressed in a shortened hoop-skirt affair, paired with the sort of lacy cropped shirt I might have seen on the walk up to the theater. Tartuffe wore leather in the closing scene, the daughter’s lover wore a modern, flower-patterned suit tied with a sash. The set too was contemporary suggestion of the opulent past of French court life, as can be seen in the image below. The lack of much Rococo patterning, an extravagant art and architectural style of that period, left only the bare bones of the palatial structures courtiers lived in.
To my mind, all of these visual choices, the self-contradicting costumes, the open, bare stage, indicated the modernization of Moliere’s work. By choosing the blurred line between French and American societies, director Dominique Serrand made it impossible for an audience to sit comfortably in one setting, and therefore entirely possible for them to consider the reflection of that past in their present. Ostensibly rooted in a time when Catholicism was national and enforced, Serrand still managed to make the production feel entirely relevant to 21st century audiences.
It is a timeless fact of humanity that absolute power corrupts absolutely, that almost every major organization given sole authority over a people will eventually fall into demoralization. The Catholic church, for all its well-meaning and poetic intentions, has over the years proven fallible to this law, and Moliere’s darkly comic prod in the ribs of that power still rings true in the age of the Enron scandal and the Westboro Baptist Church. Whether or not Serrand meant this production to become a critique of the church today remains to be seen. Personally, I found it rather to be a satire and a warning against the hysteria of the blindly corrupted, as much as the play concerned corruption itself.
Much of the play consists of Orgon’s ridiculous insistence on the sanctity of false prophet Tartuffe. In those escalating patterns of behavior, wherein everyone in the family suffers (save Tartuffe and his servants), I saw that supreme folly of blind faith, of the chaotic and ludicrous life choices it can produce. Orgon’s entire household crashes down around him as he insistently shouts Tartuffe’s praises, a child with fingers in ears. In the role of Orgon’s mother too we see this intransigent persistence to believe in a clear lie, even as her own son presents undeniable evidence before her.
While this blind faith phenomenon could easily be linked up with the shocking behavior of some contemporary offshoots of Christianity, I looked at the production more as a metaphorical statement on how easily humanity can be manipulated, how dangerous that gullibility can be, how important it is to balance one’s worldview. This, among so many religions, corporations, freedom fighters, global powers, military powers, and government powers, is entirely relevant and extremely resonant. Moliere’s satire moves beyond farce and into a shrewd lesson on how to handle the self among the masses.