(Costa Mesa, CA) May, 2014 – When South Coast Repertory first opened its theatrical doors in 1964, their first production was Moliere’s Tartuffe, a sexy French farce about religious hypocrisy and the gullibility of those who are blinded by the idolatry of man. Fifty years later, this critically acclaimed regional theater ends its Golden Anniversary with this same classical work, bookending not only a successful season, but also celebrating a thriving artistic journey for Founding Directors Martin Benson and David Emmes, Artistic Director Marc Masterson, Managing Director Paula Tomei, and all the staff and artists who have worked tirelessly at this prestigious company through the years.
However appropriate it may be to end this 50th season with this play, SCR’s production takes a darker turn with regard to the story’s tone and the context by infusing wanton simulated sexual violence and symbolic desecration of religious iconography, tainting Moliere’s profound comedic work. In an attempt to get to the dark underbelly of religious fanaticism, Director Dominique Serrand completely destroys SCR’s season finale by confusing satire with gratuitous shock clichés.
All is not well at the mansion of Orgon (Luverne Seifert). This loyal member of the French aristocracy is under the spell of the seemingly pious Tartuffe (Steven Epp), a border who has basically taken over the entire household, much to the dismay of his wife Elmire (Cate Scott Campbell), his hot-headed son and naïve daughter, Damis and Mariane (Brian Hostenske and Lenne Klingaman), his practical brother-in-law Cleante (Gregory Linington), and his saucy head maid Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen). It is obvious that this “holy man” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but Orgon’s blind passion for his new friend has completely enveloped him; he’s even blind to the fact that Tartuffe is lusting after Elmire right under his nose. But everything comes to a head when Orgon decides to cancel the marriage between Mariane and her suitor Valere (Christopher Carley), and instead, arranges the marriage between his daughter and Tartuffe. And it is up to Cleante and Elmire to show Orgon the pure hypocritical evil that composes Tartuffe.
In the production notes, it is pointed out---especially quoting from Julia Prest’s book “Controversy in French Drama: Moliere’s Tartuffe and the Struggle for Influence”---how modern directors have only focused on the farcical aspects of the work and strayed far from the playwright’s original text and content regarding the condemnation of religious fanaticism and hypocrisy. But director Serrand fails to see that Tartuffe is still a satirical comedy. And most of the production’s first act starts off that way perfectly. Seifert’s Orgon is a total naïve dolt who is consumed by the false piety that Tartuffe exudes. It’s a kind of denial and blindness can be applied to all sorts of idolatry, not just religious. His foolishness and the reactions of those around him are priceless, most notably Warmanen’s Dorine, whose comic timing and delivery are that of a true artist. She steals the entire play in terms of how Tartuffe should be performed with regard to satire, especially her scenes with Klingaman (a veteran at A Noise Within, whose sweet innocence is adorable) and Carley’s Valere, who wonderfully combines a puppy dog eagerness with a passionate love for his future bride. And Campbell’s Elmire, as well as Linington’s Cleante, are a nice pair of voices of reason, trying to figure out how to expose Tartuffe as the snake that he is.
However, the moment Epp’s Tartuffe appears for the first time near the end of the first act, that is where the production turns into a dark, unsettling drama. In Shakespeare Orange County’s 1996 production of Tartuffe, the title role was played by award winning actor Ron Campbell, who interlaces the character’s evil and slimy demeanor with a hysterical comic charm. He was the villain you loved to hate, and most importantly, you had fun watching his true colors. Epp, on the other hand, portrays Tartuffe with such pure unlikable vileness, with no charismatic qualities whatsoever, that it was very hard to watch him on the stage. Whether by Epp’s acting choices or Serrand’s direction…or perhaps a little of both, the play begins the downward spiral of shock value by having displays of holy objects and practices symbolically being abused or desecrated by Tartuffe and his flunkies, including self mortification with leather whips, posing in mock crucifixion poses, masochistic baptisms by slapping wet towels against bare backs, and having Tartuffe apprehended and escorted away while chained to a cross and wearing a crown of thorns on his head, to name a few. This use of pseudo-symbolism is so excessive that it becomes almost pornographic, leaving the audience almost desensitized to the entire experience. Tartuffe can be shown as a hypocrite without getting slammed on the head regarding how vile he can be.
These dark tones worsen later on with Serrand’s use of sexual violence in the production. In the pivotal scene where Elmire lures Tartuffe into a compromising position while Orgon hides underneath a table, listening to everything going on, the play should be a satirical, comic look in how Orgon finally sees Tartuffe in his true colors. And again, Ron Campbell was hilarious in the Shakespeare Orange County’s 1996 production. But Serrand doesn’t go for comedy; he transforms the scene into a successful sexual assault by Tartuffe that is so graphic that, although simulated, it wouldn’t be suitable to go into detail in this review. It felt like it was a scene from an S & M scenario, not a Moliere classic. And the play continues to get darker and darker towards the end when many of the female characters get slapped around, thereby eliminating any sense that the audience is watching a comedy at all.
I am not a prude. One of my favorite films is Philip Kaufman’s Quills starring Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, and Michael Caine. That was sexually graphic, but it wasn’t gratuitous and it didn’t overshadow the story. And I am a constant fan of Quentin Tarantino, and most of his films are purposely gratuitous because that goes with the style of the genre. But this is Moliere, not an action film. And for Serrand to shock audiences with excessive simulated sex and violence, as well as blatant abuse of holy relics, not only demeans the source material, but also demeans the venue where it’s being performed, resulting in a theatrical disaster.
Does this production ruin the entire Golden Anniversary season? Absolutely not. Using a tired metaphor, a few rotten apples should never ruin the entire batch in the basket. Artistic Director Masterson has chosen a top notch season that symbolizes the artistic wonder that composes South Coast Repertory. The season opener, Death of a Salesman (directed by Masterson) was a true wonder to behold. SCR’s premiere of The Light in the Piazza was a treasured homage to the 1950s musical. But most importantly, the Golden Anniversary produced six world premieres, the most SCR has produced in a single season; special mention goes to Samuel Hunter’s Rest, Gregory S. Moss’s Reunion and especially Adam Rapp’s powerful The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, all of whom possess a creative voice that stimulates the magic SCR possesses, as well as theatre lovers who attend these shows. It was truly a golden season for this critically acclaimed regional theatre company. And without a doubt, this magic will continue to thrive for the next fifty years.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Tartuffe opened May 9-June 8, 2014
South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Debora Robinson