Moliere’s controversial ‘Tartuffe’ is re-imagined with a less jarring ending.
It may be impossible to ever find a suitable ending to Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” a dark, 17th century French farce that confronts and mocks hypocritical religiosity. The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of this classic, playing now in the Harman Theatre, for all its brilliance, remains a 350-year-old play in search of a coherent ending.
When Moliere’s “Tartuffe” originally opened, there was such an uproar that the Archbishop of Paris threatened excommunication for anyone who attended or performed in the play. The Catholic Church had that kind of absolute power then and Moliere was forced to at least change the unacceptable ending of his comedy and to make it less critical of religion. He rewrote “Tartuffe” three times.
Considered one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature, Moliere, an actor as well as a playwright, had a talent for mockery. In “Tartuffe,” the wealthy family patriarch, Orgon, is captivated by the enticing religious virtue spouted by Tartuffe. He considers him a paragon of holy virtue. Orgon is so mesmerized that he will not heed warnings from his family that Tartuffe is a hypocrite and is also attempting to seduce his wife. For him, Tartuffe is never to be questioned.
Orgon is a man lost in a thicket of virtue. And in Luverne Seifert’s solid performance, Orgon is pathetically comical and painfully tragic. He even decides to break an agreement to permit his daughter to marry a handsome youthful Valere (Christopher Carley), and instead force her to marry Tartuffe. In a self-centered boast, he tells his daughter that the children they have will resemble both Orgon and Tartuffe.
His teenage, flighty daughter Mariane (Lenne Klingaman) is so stunned and horrified by his decision that she is unable to argue with him about it. And, as she says to the family servant, Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen) she cannot question a father’s authority. Dorine, who has some of the most comedic lines in the play, storms about arguing with Orgon, provoking his anger. Dorine also argues with Mariane, trying to get her to stiffen a non-existent resolve. Her energetic performance is so pleasing to the audience that Klingaman is applauded when she leaves the stage.
Mariane is in a frivolous bare-midriff top and puffy, full skirt, something a teenager of the 20th century might wear. The look is appropriate. For Orgon, costume designer Sonya Berlovitz outfitted him in severe black, fitting his uncompromising religiosity; Tartuffe is in understated pale gray that in itself is menacing. Usually seen with two sidekick henchmen, he tends to blend into the vast, empty set by scenic designers Dominique Serrand and Tom Buderwitz. They have created a towering room in the Orgon household that also vaguely resembles a church. There is little furniture except for a table, a kneeler and a few chairs.
Organ’s blind belief of everything the smug Tartuffe utters accelerates to the point that in addition to giving him his daughter, he disinherits his son for his criticism of Tartuffe, and he decides to punish his entire family by signing everything he owns over to the Tartuffe.
Steven Epp is masterful in his portrayal of the viperous Tartuffe. Director Dominique Serrand masters the dark side of this comedy and has Tartuffe slither across the floor as he attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Sofia Jean Gomez). Orgon refuses to believe that Tartuffe would be guilty of such a thing. But in the best farce tradition, Elmire convinces Orgon to hide under a table so that he can witness Tartuffe’s amorous behavior.
The seduction scene is uncomfortable to watch, but it serves its purpose and awakens Orgon from his religious revelry. For Orgon and his family, however, it is too late since he has signed everything over to Tartuffe who demands they vacate his house by the next morning, which is how the play originally ended. This time, there is a more acceptable ending. The family is packed and resigned to ending up on the streets when they are saved by a reprieve from the king who has ordered Tartuffe’s arrest.
In a final touch of irony, Tartuffe is lead away to prison with a cross strapped to his back. For him, the Christ imagery works into his unrepentant charlatan religiosity. He is escorted away to his imprisonment with an enigmatic smile.
“Tartuffe” continues through July 5 at Sidney Harman Hall at the Shakespeare Theatre, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $20-$110 and available at 202-547-1122 or online here.