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'Tartuffe' Resonates in the Now

Theater Review: Moliere's classic tale of 17th century hypocrisy, charmingly staged by South Coast Repertory, retains its relevance.

January 18, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

As long as hypocrisy thrives, so will Moliere's "Tartuffe." Every age yields incorrigible rascals who profess piety. Still, the current drama in Washington makes this great comedy from 1664 seem especially apt.

The audiences attending the staging by David Chambers at South Coast Repertory don't need the resonances spelled out. Though the production stays scrupulously within the 17th century, with no updating of Richard Wilbur's familiar translation, it inspired two couples behind me to begin discussing Rep. Henry Hyde within five seconds after the intermission began.

Later, as Elmire appeared to consent to the sexual overtures of the title character (it's actually a ruse, with her husband hiding under the table), the quick movement of Mark Harelik's Tartuffe into a prone position atop the table--facing the standing Elmire--prompted a huge laugh that seemed to arise at least in part from the audience's awareness of White House events as related in the Starr report.

Not that the juiciness of this staging is reliant on current events. Chambers directed a generally brilliant cast on a glittery stage, blocking the movements of the actors with geometric precision, creating a production that's irresistible, for the most part.

He also introduced a couple of directorial touches that attempt to connect the proceedings to the supernatural but don't quite click. Periodically the stage is jolted by thunder and lightning that have some mystical association with a staff that's passed among various characters. These kinetic bursts energize the stage for a moment and then--because the text isn't altered--appear to pass unnoticed by the characters, which seems odd, to say the least.

Finally, after the text ends and most of the characters have left the stage, we see what happens next to Tartuffe. While the exact details of this ending should remain a surprise, suffice it to say that we leave the theater wondering exactly who bred this strange creature. The effect is to make him seem less like one of us, more like a specter out of a nightmare. This subverts the classic goal of comedy--to make us see our own too-human frailties reflected within the fools onstage.

Earlier in the play, Harelik appears more human than many a Tartuffe. He's not just a crafty lecher. His seduction scenes with Lynnda Ferguson's Elmire generate sexual heat. His performance is so smoothly measured that it ironically embodies Moliere's favorite virtue of moderation.

Hal Landon Jr., who played the title role in 1975 at South Coast, is now an extraordinary Orgon, the gullible master of the house who falls for the con artist. He masterfully uses his long face and tender eyes to express fond sympathy for his favorite while lashing out at everyone else.

Rene Augesen is a commanding Dorine, one of the brashest servants in theatrical history. She's very funny as she attempts to unite the lovebirds Mariane (Svetlana Efremova, with fiery red curls, an amusingly pathetic squeal and a slight Russian accent that charms without distracting) and Valere (David Fenner, magnificently ridiculous). Hope Alexander's old biddy sneers and snarls to perfection.

Ralph Funicello's grand salon, all gilt and marble, makes us appreciate the value of the assets that Tartuffe covets. It includes a steep staircase, center stage, that Chambers uses well for dramatic entrances and exits. Shigeru Yaji's costumes and Carol F. Doran's wigs for the fashionable set are so elaborate that one can discern a practical reason for Tartuffe's much more severe look--his clothes are easier to remove when he's in a hurry.

*

"Tartuffe," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 14. $28-$45. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Mark Harelik: Tartuffe

Hal Landon Jr.: Orgon

Lynnda Ferguson: Elmire

Rene Augesen: Dorine

Hope Alexander: Madame Pernelle

Robert Patrick Benedict: Damis

Svetlana Efremova: Mariane

David Fenner: Valere

William Francis McGuire: Cleante

Art Koustik: Monsieur Loyal

The Officer: Don Took

Tracy Rowe: Flipote

Moliere's comedy. Translated by Richard Wilbur. Directed by David Chambers. Set by Ralph Funicello. Costumes by Shigeru Yaji. Lighting by Chris Parry. Sound by B.C. Keller. Wigs by Carol F. Doran. Stage manager Julie Haber.

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