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THEATER REVIEW

'Tartuffe' Celebrates a Beastly Character

August 21, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the moment, Shakespeare Orange County is Moliere Orange County, and the change is a little startling.

Under Thomas F. Bradac's direction, the Shakespeare done at Shakespeare Orange County is usually competent but seldom memorable.

But give Bradac Moliere's "Tartuffe," and you have a whole different animal. Indeed, "animal" is the operative word for Ron Campbell's performance as theater's slimiest hypocrite.

Taking Richard Wilbur's ever-popular English verse edition as a time signature, this staging at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre in Orange is the smoothest, peppiest, most dancerly Bradac has managed since the heyday of his Grove Shakespeare Festival.

And he has Campbell, who delivered some of the strongest performances in the latter-day Grove Shakespeare shows ("The Tempest," for one) and who has become perhaps the leading actor at Laguna Playhouse.

Campbell remains simply one of the best, most unpredictable actors on (at least) the West Coast. As he suggested a couple of seasons back in Laguna's "The Liar," he is a gifted satirical player, born for Moliere, and especially for the falsely pious, scheming Tartuffe.

Few title characters are so thoroughly discussed--and trashed--as this one is before his appearance. Orgon (Daniel Bryan Cartmell), the head of the house, is in love with Tartuffe's piety and dismisses his family's almost universal disgust of this intruding, freelance religious zealot.

Brother-in-law Cleante's (Carl Reggiardo) wise advice to keep an eye on him? Ladymaid Dorine's (Eve Himmelheber) warnings that he means nothing but trouble to the family? Nonsense, says Orgon, who wants him to marry his shellshocked daughter, Mariane (Susanna Morrow).

Bradac establishes a taut, elegant ensemble rhythm from the start, as the family is trying to sway Orgon's mother, Mme. Pernelle (the exquisite Teri Ciranna), from her absurd adoration of Tartuffe. The man attains such an aura about him by the end of all this that the actor playing him has to be special.

Campbell appears pasty-faced, in long, greasy hair, and with a way of gobbling kisses blown to him like a frog does a fly. He snorts more than laughs, and he walks about the stage like a predator. This Tartuffe is no standard-issue performance, but a brilliant combination of the coyote-trickster and Rasputin.

Cartmell is an ideal counterweight to Campbell, with his Orgon a foolish dandy taken in by Tartuffe's gift of the pious gab. Among Tartuffe's harshest critics, Himmelheber leads the way, perhaps overemphasizing Wilbur's rhyme scheme but always charismatic.

As the play's font of wisdom, Reggiardo's Cleante is not only wise but amusingly frustrated at the folks around him who are slow to grasp the Age of Reason. Beth Kellermann is only mildly funny as Orgon's smarter half, but Cox, as Orgon's son, and Morrow milk every moment they have with hilarious youthful rage and panic.

Tartuffe's false front is translated by designer Chris Holmes into a set of viewer-friendly trompe l'oeil architecture. There is nothing fake, however, about Wilma Mickler-Sears' beautiful, upper-bourgeois costumes, and Christine Stahl's deliberately overdone makeup and wigs are period-perfect. Bill Georges' lights are less accomplished, but accented by a chandelier with real, lit candles.

* "Tartuffe," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 301 E. Palm St., Orange. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Sept. 7. $20-$24. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Ron Campbell: Tartuffe

Daniel Bryan Cartmell: Orgon

Carl Reggiardo: Cleante

Eve Himmelheber: Dorine

Beth Kellermann: Elmire

Susanna Morrow: Mariane

Teri Ciranna: Mme. Pernelle

Sean Cox: Damis

Brian Kolb: Valere

Frank Davis: M. Loyal

John Shouse: An Officer

A Shakespeare Orange County production of Moliere's comedy. Directed by Thomas F. Bradac. Set Chris Holmes. Lights Bill Georges. Costumes Wilma Mickler-Sears. Makeup-wigs Christine Stahl. Sound Craig Brown.

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