By Tristan Lejeune
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of Tartuffe wants to be a classic French recipe (your blanquette de veau, par example, or your duck a l’orange) done up in a contemporary style. Time for a boysenberry and quinoa accompaniment, and don’t forget the enormous, square, bright white plate!
Does duck a l’orange need updating? No, but we rarely fault chefs who try. Moliere’s Tartuffe was a satire in the 17th century, a classic in the 19th, and an antique well before the 20th. Still, STC’s production, which opened Monday at Sidney Harman Hall to close out the company’s 2014-2015 season, is a tasty and filling dish — as much for what it seeks to preserve as for what it seeks to renew.
The religious commentary, in particular, is handled with a blessedly light touch. As adapted by David Ball, the script tries to keep its farce humane and away from spiritual pedantry. Current D.C. society lacks either fearsome crown or church, of course, but it’s full of hypocrisy. Moliere’s language takes a battering — the final product dives rather jarringly in and out of rhyme — but none of its “modernization” comes in the form of winking at forced modern-day parallels. Thank god.
Only the bewigged French aristocrat Orgon (Luverne Seifert) and his mother are fooled by the falsely pious Tartuffe (Steven Epp), who has wormed his way into his house and mind like a less bloodthirsty Iago. Orgon’s wife, children and servants all see the self-flagellating lout for what he is: an opportunistic parasite out to take the rich fool for whatever he can get, which, it turns out, is absolutely everything. It’s going to take a couple of broken engagements, some secret letters, and a few hands wandering under petticoats to get this one sorted out.
Directed by Dominique Serrand, the story comes with quite a bit of momentum already going in; we’re watching the climax of a much longer episode, and Serrand helps the actors funnel that drive. Seifert’s Orgon finds copious stretches of level-headedness and reason, so his blundering misjudgement is more sympathetic. And Epp’s title character is a flagrant charlatan, but not a cartoonish or mustache-twirling antagonist. His is the type of hypocrite who might believably have advanced at Versailles.
Joining them in stock characters with human dimensions are Lenne Klingaman as Orgon’s daughter, Mariane; Christopher Carley as her off-again, extra-on-again fiance, Valere; and Suzanne Warmanen as the wise servant Dorine, whose slogan might be “Stealing Scenes Since the Enlightenment.” Klingaman and Carley are silly but sweet, and if it seems like they’re playing broad, that’s no doubt exactly what original audiences would have wanted. Warmenen is commanding: it’s tough to take your eyes off of her, and not just because she’s a fountain of truth. All three handle the dialogue like they were born to do it, though the stage directions don’t do them any favors.
The stymied young lovers. The rich, foolish patriarch. The falsely noble schemer. The smart-mouthed servant who sees all. These are commedia dell’arte archetypes (perhaps this French recipe is really Italian after all…) that were a hundred years old before Moliere’s parable about family, good sense and blind religious devotion. Add a couple centuries of theatrical pagentry — and historical knowledge of France’s extraordinarily bloody revolution — and the whole thing is stacked up like a wedding cake, to which the top-notch set bears a passing resemblance.
Omigod, the set. Designed by Serrand and Tom Buderwitz, it’s a gold-on-white masterpiece, though even it can’t quite withstand the worst thing about this Tartuffe: the blocking. Is it possible someone backstage didn’t trust theatergoers to maintain focus unless the players were in almost constant motion? The exquisite scenery is a wonderful playground, but nothing reminds you you’re looking at a fake marble floor as much as the sound of someone stomping on it. Tartuffe’s two manservants, though spared the stomping, literally never stop skulking around. One imagines their rehearsal notes full of directions like “Skulk in from offstage left to center” and “Cross from center-right to downstage right, skulking.” At one point, one of them even skulks while hanging OFF the set, which is beyond distracting and kind of into crazy territory.
Even Shakespeare felt the urge break out of 2-D staging, but the chess board is perfectly suited to Moliere’s game of influence and alliance. Calm down and let every movement come from motive. Still, if the worst thing about STC’s production is too much stomping and rolling on the floor (and it is), that’s pretty darn impressive.
The best thing is watching the characters learn and develop — there’s not an actor on stage who can’t play internal growth, and that’s what we’ve come to see. When Tartuffe is revealed as a fraud, there’s palatable relief in the ensemble, but also a chill. Everyone’s position is more precarious than they thought.
You might not be craving seconds, but this is one dish worth savoring. Bon appetit!