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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

In Jeune Lune's hands, Tartuffe is as much high drama as comedy

In Theatre de la Jeune Lune's impassioned playing of one of Moliere's greatest comedies, Tartuffe, there is plenty of fun, but in this adaptation by David Ball a dark urgency tugs at the play, lending it a poignancy that held the house mesmerized on opening night.

First class acting, subtle direction, a fine set and the play's discomforting plot make Jeune Lune's Tartuffe as spellbinding as a deadly snake charmed from its basket.

Religious hypocrisy, zealotry and absolutism underpin the story of Tartuffe. Wealthy Orgon is a good man who lives like an ascetic in a sparsely furnished but grand house. He is convinced that the erstwhile vagrant Tartuffe is a man steeped in pious devotion. Tartuffe has ingratiated himself and his two henchmen into Orgon's home and has so convinced Orgon and his elderly mother of his religious fervor that Orgon no longer makes any decisions without first consulting Tartuffe. The schemer plots to seduce Orgon's beautiful wife, Elmire, and to steal everything that Organ owns. Orgon, blinded by his absolute zeal for Tartuffe, inadvertently helps him at every turn. Everybody else in the household is acutely aware of Tartuffe's blatant hypocrisy, but they cannot open Orgon's eyes.

Tartuffe is commonly played as broad satirical comedy, but under Dominique Serrand's direction, Moliere's masterwork feels more like political drama and a metaphor for the seeming piety in our present public life.

The play has a structural problem in that Tartuffe does not appear on stage until well into the action. Although much witty discussion takes place between Orgon, Dorine, a clever servant and Cleante, Orgon's brother-in-law, the play did not grip me until Tartuffe stepped on stage.

Dominique Serrand plays Orgon as a man at peace with his certainty. He wears a beatific smile as he listens to his brother-in-law's arguments against Tartuffe and, in a nice moment, brushes away the troublesome conversation as though it were a mere fly. It is as though Orgon is hypnotized by his devotion to Tartuffe. Serrand captures the aristocrat's sense of his own saintliness in gesture and bland facial expression, whether he is dismissing his wife's headache, being flagellated by Tartuffe's servants, or forcing his young daughter into a cruel marriage.

I found Steven Epp's muscular Tartuffe deeply unsettling as he insinuates himself into the lives of Orgon's household. Tartuffe uses self-flagellation (well, of a sort), ceremony and tortuous arguments to manipulate others. His desire for Elmire is sanctified by God, he explains, and he forgives her for her attractions. In the superb seduction scene with Elmire, complete with a bitten-into red apple, Epp's Tartuffe creeps imperceptibly towards her, a snake preparing to strike. In fine physical playing, Tartuffe affects the dramatic position of crucifixion whenever he's criticized and, in a tableau-like moment, his two henchmen and Orgon cradle him, as though he is Christ, being taken from the cross.

Strong acting hallmarks this production. As Elmire, Sarah Agnew is beautiful and dignified, even as she is suffering violation in order to reveal Tartuffe's true nature to her unseeing husband. Barbra Berlovitz plays feisty Dorine, an articulate servant who sees straight and talks straight to her master. She delivers zingers like, "Gossip is God's way of controlling behavior," and "God needs more self-confidence." Maggie Chestovich froths on stage as Mariane, Orgon's youthful and petulant daughter, and Richard Iglewski is Cleante, his sensible but ineffective brother-in-law.

Stephen Cartmell, Jim Lichtscheidl, Barbara Kingsley, Nathan Keepers and Anna Lawrence round out the capable cast of main players.

Small details in Serrand's direction deepen this Tartuffe, things like the irresistible church music that pervades the house whenever Tartuffe is about his invasive business; the self-denial of a meager boiled egg that Orgon eats for his supper; Tartuffe's physical affectation of martyrdom; kneeling Orgon's open-armed gesture of giving all that he has; the misused iconography of a silver cross earring and a cross charcoaled into the sideburns of Tartuffe's chief henchman (Nathan Keepers;) the awful irony of Orgon's weak accusation, "That monster!" when he, himself, was the instrument of the monster.

Serrand designed the spacious room of the set, with its classical lines and noble proportions, and through the generous windows, Marcus Dilliard's lighting shades the moods of the play.

Ball's adaptation stays true to the part rhyming iambic pentameter, but mostly prose form of Moliere's Tartuffe, and just when my ear began to anticipate the "devotion" that must chime with "emotion," "need" with "intercede," the form drops back into comfortable vernacular.

Sonya Berlovitz's costumes set this Tartuffe in Moliere's 17th century, yet the play feels modern and startlingly relevant. If only we had Moliere's neat deus ex-machina ending to rescue us from current troubles.

The whole adds up to a particularly fine Tartuffe. Dare I say, "brilliant?"

Tartuffe running in repertory with The Miser, October 21 December 17, 2006. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sundays 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Call for play rotations. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, First Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: $30. Call 612-333-6200 or www.jeunelune.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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