Curtain Calls: “Tartuffe” – False prophets and true believers

Like any good master of farce, Moliere knew that there is a very snug relationship between humor and truth. If your audience canâ??t recognize the truth in a parodied situation, they wonâ??t see the humor. Unfortunately, at the first showing of â??Tartuffeâ? in 1664 for Louis XIV, the representatives of the Church did, indeed, see the truth of it. And they did not find it funny. They even prevailed upon the amused king to have it shut down.

Five years later, Moliere reopened the play and published a trenchant comment in the preface pointing out that while doctors, cuckolds, and hypochondriacs have â??suffered themselves to be represented and have pretended to be amusedâ?¦.the hypocrites have not taken the joke.â?

And thatâ??s the fine point. It isnâ??t about religion; itâ??s about religious hypocrisy. And it isnâ??t about believers; itâ??s about fanatics. Somehow the two seem to find each other. In director Dominique Serrandâ??s silky production, an unaccountably besotted Orgon attaches himself to the religious charlatan, Tartuffe, at the expense of his family, his familyâ??s happiness and ultimately, all he owns. This isnâ??t Chekhov, so we donâ??t get any insights into what need his devotion to Tartuffe satisfies. We just know that it does.

Itâ??s a dark commentary illuminated with brief flashes of humor, and while some interpretations play up the humor, this one does not. The overall effect is as startling as a blood stain. Scene designers Serrand and Buderwitzâ??s classical lines in ice blue and cream mirror the cold, inevitable tension between Orgonâ??s determined patronage of the smooth-operating hypocrite and the householdâ??s resistance. A 400-cue lighting design by Marcus Dilliard takes the play from dark early morning to late evening of one day with subtle warms and cools that reflect specific moments on stage.

But the comedy must be given its due, and the irrepressible Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen) with her plainly blurted protests gets the largest share. Whether forcing reconciliation between hot-headed lovers Mariane and Valere (Lenne Klingaman and Christopher Carley) or daring to tell Orgon what she thinks, Ms. Warmanen gives this role substance as well as a free-breathing naturalism.

It is all too easy to caricature Orgon and Tartuffe, being the extreme examples of human fatuity that they are, but Serrandâ??s restrained direction reigns. Orgon (Luverne Seifert) may be a deluded fool, but heâ??s a three-dimensional fool nevertheless, and his stubborn clinging to his position while being forced to entertain doubts can be read from the back rows. To bring him further alive, we must have a Tartuffe that an Orgon like this can believe in.

Helen Hays award-winner Steven Epp is the answer. He does not need to ingratiate himself to the household; heâ??s already won. As smooth and smiling as a serpent, he not only enjoys Orgonâ??s hero worship and the consternation his obvious duplicity inspires, he is amused by it â?? a Caligula sure of his power and just as frightening.

Orgonâ??s wife, Elmire (Sofia Gomez) with help from her brother, Cleante (Gregory Linington) holds the key to Tartuffeâ??s downfall. If Orgon can be persuaded to hide and actually witness Tartuffeâ??s attempted seduction â?? in this case, more like rape â?? of Elmire, perhaps Orgon will come out of his fog.

In the most unusual interpretation Iâ??ve yet seen, Elmire, who despises Tartuffe, and Tartuffe, who intends to conquer Elmire, play out their objectives on one another in what amounts to a slow-moving, hypnotic ballet. The tiny, blond Elmire in her voluminous blue satin dress shrinks and rises mirroring the cobra dance of her adversary. Furthering the trance-inducing quality of this scene and several others, shadowy figures move and pose in response to the underlying motivations.

Not one to fear backlash to a realistic ending, Moliere nevertheless was finally prevailed upon to change his ending to a last minute come-uppance designed to assure audiences that crime doesnâ??t pay. This production goes as far as it can possibly go with that idea, introducing a startling vision that I wonâ??t divulge here.

Are there still religious hypocrites and fanatics? Of course. But as long as itâ??s â??over there and back thenâ? it doesnâ??t seem all that relevant. Iâ??m still waiting for the production that sets â??Tartuffeâ? in a 20,000 member mega-church, master media manipulator in a business suit and expensive coif, Orgon following him around, checkbook at the ready.

Who says the 17th century has nothing to say to the 21st?

If You Go

What: Moliereâ??s â??Tartuffeâ?
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co.
Sidney Harman Hall
601 F St. NW
Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org
Playing through July 5

Maggie Lawrence is a retired English and drama teacher. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. You may reach her at maggiecatbird@aol.com