Anyone who needs evidence that directing for the stage is a craft, talent and art every bit as illuminating and creative as a killer script or spectacular acting should look no further than Dominique Serrand's fascinating take on that chestnut of world theater, Molière's Tartuffe. And not just because there's finger-fucking.
Tartuffe is fitting on two fronts for South Coast Repertory. It was the first play the company ever produced, and since this is SCR's 50th anniversary, it just makes sense. Second, Tartuffe is a comedy, but a dark one, synonymous with religious hypocrisy and garish piety in the name of God. And considering Orange County has more than its fair share of demented Christian fundies, pedophiliac Catholic priests, and institutions that have grown fat and bloated on the blood of Christ (Trinity Broadcasting Network, the Crystal Cathedral, Calvary Chapel, etc.), you don't have to spit too far to lob a loogie on some man or woman of God exalting themselves while either falling somewhat short of God or making an awful lot of money in His name.
Corruption and lechery are part of Serrand's Tartuffe, which is based on an adaption by David Ball, as they should be for any production. But Ball's take, which he has been honing since first staging it in 1998 at the now-defunct Theatre de La Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, isn't content to regurgitate the most obvious thing about Molière's 1664 play: religious hypocrisy has been around far longer than Jimmy Swaggart and the Catholic Diocese of Orange, and gee, wasn't Molière brilliant for saying that 350 years ago? No, this Tartuffe goes deeper—and a whole lot weirder than many productions, which seem content to play it as a bawdy comic farce with plenty of dick jokes and a title character who takes advantage of a simple, gullible master of a house, Orgon, at the expense of Orgon's family and wealth.
Religious zealousness bordering on outright fanaticism is at the heart of this Tartuffe. Wooden crucifixes appear during scenes of seduction and betrayal. Scourgings, perverse enactments of Catholic rites from communion to incense burning, motifs of sacrifice, and religious fetishism abound. The overt use of these symbols and objects is both hilarious and discomforting, and that's supported by the imaginative movements incorporated by Serrand, ranging from mime and commedia dell'arte to interpretative dance and even ballet.
The slinkiest movements are supplied by Tartuffe (a masterful, snaky, richly corrupt Steven Epp) and his two acolytes, Laurent (a lithe and perverse Nathan Keepers) and Pascal, (a silent but effective Nick Slimmer). As Tartuffe schemes, seduces and scourges himself, his two servants serve as a silent chorus, using their bodies to comment on the subtext of their master's words. But Tartuffe wouldn't be Tartuffe—just as any self-appointed man or woman of God wouldn't be on TV—without his flock. And while Tartuffe is vile and manipulative, Orgon, the man who is Tartuffe's greatest champion, is equally as culpable. Orgon's zealousness isn't found in devotion to a text, a God or a way of living. It's found in his blind allegiance to Tartuffe, someone whom everyone around realizes is a fake, but whom Orgon, for whatever reason, believes is God's voice on Earth.
Rather than playing him as a befuddled dolt, Luverne Seifert makes Orgon strong and impassioned, as well as absolutely convinced that where others see swine, he glimpses a pearl in Tartuffe. That conviction merely underscores the point of the danger of blind devotion. Whereas Tartuffe could very well not believe a single word he spouts about God's love or his devotion, Orgon believes in him completely. Point being? How much culpability to those who believe in the lie bear in that lie's perpetuation?
Not all is doom, gloom, symbols and subterfuge. This is a comedy, after all, and not just because the stage isn't littered with dead bodies at the end. When it's funny, it's very funny. Christopher Carley's foppish Valere and Lenne Klingaman's histrionic Mariane are suitably cloying and charming as the young lovers; and Suzanne Warmanen's outspoken servant, Dorine, nearly steals every scene she's in. But Serrand's vision isn't content to merely jab the funny bone. There's serious shit going on. And the play's final image—that of a family that has narrowly averted disaster, of happily ever after—is anything but.
Furniture is stacked high against an entrance that is then bolted. Foreboding, instead of relief paints the character's faces. And it seems clear this isn't a family terrified of threats from outside the house, of churches, or states or movements. They fear what is inside that house. And ultimately, that's what this imaginative staging of Tartuffe suggests: that while few things are more terrifying than a religion supposedly based on love and charity turned into a devouring worm swallowing its own tail, the real monster doesn't reside in the text or rituals of that religion, but in the faulty hearts of its adherents.
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