Tartuffe, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Normally, if a review starts out by talking about the design, that's an ill omen of what's to come. Anyone capable of making such a broad and sweeping generalization, however, has clearly never seen Marcus Dilliard's absolutely incredible lighting design for Dominique Serrand's production of Tartuffe at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.  When the curtain rises, we are in the spare beams of dawn's earliest light, leaving huge swathes of the stage in stillness and darkness.  By the end of the evening, twilight has fallen and night looms back over the stage.  In the halflight (quarter light?) of morning, Sonya Berlovitz's costumes make the ensemble look like statues slowly coming to life. During the two and half hours of the performance, we see that light slowly shift and transform over the course of the theatrical day as it stretches across the set designed by Serrand and Tom Buderwitz, and it's an absolutely stunning effect. 

Suzanne Warmanen as Dorine and ensemble member 
Stephanie Schmalzle in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 
production of Molière’s Tartuffe, adapted by David Ball, directed 
by Dominique Serrand. Photo by Scott Suchman.
That opening scene is so intensely beautiful and artistically unlike anything we've seen recently on STC's stages that it's reason enough to welcome this production of Molière's Tartuffe, seen in previous stagings at the South Coast Repertory  Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Serrand has assembled a wonderful cast, led by Steven Epp, Luverne Seifert, and Sofia Jean Gomez as respectively, the manipulating Tartuffe, the duped Orgon, and the contrasting pillar of strength that is his wife, Elmire. Days have passed since I saw this production, and I still think that I might cross the street if I saw Epp coming in my direction.

Sofia Jean Gomez as Elmire and Steven Epp as Tartuffe in the 
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Molière’s
Tartuffe, adapted by David Ball, directed by Dominique Serrand.
Photo by Scott Suchman.
Of course, part of that is because in Serrand's production, Epp's Tartuffe is a sinuous, deadly force to be reckoned with, more so than in any incarnation of the role I've seen.  Unfortunately, Serrand chooses to add sexual assault as a cherry on top of a wickedness sundae, which is a damaging trend in storytellers today, and one that I wish we saw far less of in film, television, and theatre. An audience doesn't need rape to put us on the side of Elmire against Tartuffe, and I don't need to see a woman assaulted to prove a larger point about another man (in this case, Orgon). It's a misstep in an otherwise smart and savvy production.

That said, there's a lot to appreciate in this production.  Suzanne Warmanen is absolute dynamite as the servant Dorine, and Lenne Klingaman and Christopher Carley are delightful as a pair of lovers parted by Orgon's blindness to Tartuffe's faults.  Serrand's production is bursting with fascinating physicality, which should surprise no one once you read his bio and amassed experience.  The production constantly challenges audiences, demanding their engagement in what they watch. This is not theatre for someone looking to passively receive something pretty and unchallenging; whatever you think of what Serrand has assembled onstage, you will come away with an opinion of what you've seen, which cannot always be said of some theatre I've seen over the years.


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