Berkeley Rep stages a sizzling Tartuffe

Moliere gets a makeover at Berkeley Rep

Moliere’s Tartuffe was banned during the playwright’s lifetime.  The Berkeley Rep playbill for its impressive, coolly-stylized take on the 1663 comedy/drama, co-produced with South Coast Repertory and Shakespeare Theatre Company, lists other works that were at one or another time swept off the stage.  Some may puzzle us, like West Side Story and The Importance of Being Earnest, but when a modern audience sees Tartuffe, it can have no doubt why the Sun King, who is reputed to have liked the play, succumbed to pressure to say it nay.  It skewers religious hypocrisy and blind upper class boobery with a razor-sharp a blade, and neither the clergy nor the nobility cared to be sliced and diced by it.

Moliere’s weapon was satire, and they didn’t want to take any chance they’d be the butt of laughs.

The tale takes place in a well-to-do household, where the pious fraud, Tartuffe, has bamboozled the head of the house, Orgon, and his mother, Madame Pernelle, into believing his religious exhortations and acting on them.  Every bit of joy and fun is thus denounced by Orgon, who grows suspicious of his own family–his wife Elmire, his daughter Mariane, his son Damis, his brother-in-law Cleante, his servants as well.  They have clear eyes and common sense, but he has power.  In his blinkered view Tartuffe can do no wrong, and the dilemma of the family and servants is how to expose the sly hypocrite, Tartuffe, who lives and lurks among them, plotting to steal all Orgon owns.

David Ball’s straightforward translation/adaptation of the work gives director/theater-maker Dominque Serrand, formerly of Theatre de la Jeune Lune and now co-artistic director of the Moving Company, a sturdy framework for his striking inventions.  He has a firm hand.  You feel as you watch the meticulously choreographed production that nothing is left to chance.  The result is a show with lots of laughs but with also a bit of a chill to it.  You’re never drawn into a human drama but are, rather, witnesses to a puppet show.  The result has its pleasures–it’s often brilliant, and the actors brim with talent–but, played out in the midst of a handsome but austere set (by Serrand and Tom Buderwitz) it won’t warm your heart.

That is, however, the way of farce; it’s rarely cozy, and this production can be riveting, especially in the way Serrand creates physical movements that reveal inner states of being, from submission to dominance, and in the whirls and dashes, the halts and sudden starts of the actors–they’re amusing at times, sinister at others.  Sonya Berlovitz’s stylized costumes, that blend period and modern fashion, are a star of the show.  Marcus Dillard’s subtle lighting and Corinne Carrillo’s fine sound design add to the quality.

The actors are never less than watchable, from Steven Epp as the smirking Tartuffe, to Suzanne Warmanen as the outspoken servant, Dorine, who takes the stage as if she owns it.  Willowy as a long-stemmed flower, Sofia Jean-Gomez plays Elmire, Luverne Seifert is the pompously gullible Orgon, and a fine cast supports them: Christopher Carley (Valere), Brian Hostenske (Damis), Nathan Keepers (Laurent), Lenne Klingaman (Mariane), Gregory Linington (Cleante, Michael Manuel (Madame Pernelle) and Todd Pivetti, Becca Lustgarten and Maria Leigh in a nimble ensemble.

A sturdily memorable production, Tartuffe plays on Addison Street until April 12th, followed by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes.   For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit