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Coming Up for Moliére

Friend of the Family: Paterfamilias Orgon (James Winker) embraces the wily Tartuffe (Paul Whitworth).

Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Tartuffe' skewers society, French and American

By Anne Gelhaus

AS PRODUCED by Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Moliére's Tartuffe offers a scathingly funny peek through a window that, although small, still provides a telling look at the France of the playwright's time.

In fact, the play was so dead-on in its portrayal of French nobility in the mid-1600s that King Louis XIV banned public performances of the original script, which Moliére spent five years rewriting. The version that Shakespeare Santa Cruz is staging has been further reworked, adapted by Ranjit Bolt to include marvelous English translations of Moliére's rhyming couplets.

The Shakespeare Santa Cruz cast gives the poetry in the dialogue its due without stressing the rhyme scheme so much that plot and character development are obscured. Under the direction of Anthony Powell, the actors manage to sound conversational while speaking lines that, if given a bad reading, could sound as if they were taken from a Hallmark card.

Credit for the dialogue's fluidity also goes to vocal coach Ursula Meyer, who plays Elmire. Meyer sets a wonderful example for her fellow cast members with both her comic timing and her prowess as a physical comic.

She puts both these skills to good use in the scene in which Elmire tries to entrap the lascivious Tartuffe (Shakespeare Santa Cruz artistic director Paul Whitworth) by allowing him to seduce her while her husband, Orgon (James Winker), acts as a hidden witness. It's an intelligent bit of slapstick, performed with enough emphasis on the former to make the latter even funnier.

Moliére wrote Tartuffe as a response to the Society of the Holy Sacrament, which was basically the Moral Majority of his era. Since televangelism wasn't an option in those days, society members would befriend families and appoint themselves their moral and religious advisers.

In the play, the title character has ingratiated himself into Orgon's life and is riding roughshod over the confused head of the household, who is quick to give Tartuffe both his daughter's hand and his worldly possessions, even though everyone from his wife to his brother-in-law to his maid tells him he's being gulled.

The task of putting the play in its historical context has been left primarily to scenic designer Michael Ganio, whose settings, while creative, seem heavy-handed when juxtaposed with the frivolity that occurs within them. The action all takes place in Orgon's drawing room, which Ganio has designed to look more like a Greco-Roman temple than a nobleman's sanctuary.

The backdrop, a marbleized proscenium arch, is augmented with the slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" written in French; the first word of this slogan has already been painted over in black, and throughout the show, a silhouette of a painter sits ready to complete the job.

DIRECTOR POWELL has chosen to equate Orgon's eventual triumph over Tartuffe with the political and cultural renaissance that marked Louis XIV's reign, and while Ganio's set designs make this connection to a certain extent, the best evidence of this age of enlightenment is in the script itself, in the form of strong female characters.

For a 17th-century woman, Elmire exerts an amazing amount of influence over her husband, as does Dorine (Luck Hari), a maid who steadfastly refuses to keep her place. Hari gives a luminous performance as a servant who's brazen enough to speak her mind but smart enough to know when she's said enough. In reality, it's doubtful that Dorine would have lasted in Orgon's employ, but the character is wonderful fiction.

The men in the cast give good turns as well, particularly Whitworth, who imbues Tartuffe with just the right amount of upright licentiousness.

Whitworth has an array of comic facial expressions he uses to take a humorous scene and send it over the top, and his portrayal is underscored with a menace that makes you wonder how ignorant Orgon had to be to be taken in by him.

Then again, the American public of late has elected a good number of people who espouse moral superiority while acting the opposite. In that respect, Tartuffe is as much a reflection of our society as it was of Moliére's.

Tartuffe plays in repertory through Sept. 1 at the UC­Santa Cruz Performing Arts Theater, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15­$21. (459-2159)

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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