In this new production of Molière’s masterwork, Tartuffe’s characters are heard before they are seen. It is a small choice, but a powerful one. There are just-audible breaths before lights up, and then the theater swells with the strident squabbling, scheming, and sermonizing of a family at war. The clamor of conflict with which Tartuffe opens remains the play’s defining mode of expression as it satirizes religious hypocrisy—and the culture of reverence that stands blind to it—by means of an infinitely intricate and sensitive exposure of the home life of one family.
When the wealthy Monsieur Orgon (Eddy Fernandez-Baumann) takes the penniless con artist Tartuffe (Brian Bock) into his home, it’s not long before Tartuffe hoodwinks Orgon with his pious pretenses, and Orgon grows obsessed with Tartuffe, whom he follows unflaggingly and unquestioningly as his moral and spiritual authority despite the objections of his more discerning family. Manipulating Orgon’s confidence, Tartuffe threatens to ruin the family by means of his myriad machinations. This production employs Richard Wilbur’s English translation of Molière’s original 1664 text.
The theater’s role, especially in the tradition of farce to which Tartuffe belongs, is often to color and magnify life’s details in order to draw out unstated truths. To be sure, UCSB’s production serves up the standard, and satisfying, fare of farce—improbable circumstances, word play, mischief, espionage, random plot reversals, and, of course, abundant physical comedy—but it upholds this spirit of theatrical exaggeration with particular taste and control. Ann Bruice’s deliciously garish costumes find balance next to the minimalist elegance of Nayna Ramey’s scenic design, and director Tom Whitaker regulates the whole circus with refined skill. He builds comedy and action to a satisfying momentum, with energy spilling seamlessly from one moment into the next but never drowning the subtler elements of text and performance.
As the buxom maid Dorine, Allie Granat commands the energy of Orgon’s house and Molière’s show, and she earns some of the night’s most raucous laughter. Sharp, brazen, saucy, and ever aware of her audience, Granat’s Dorine assumes many forms as the top mover and shaker in Orgon’s house. By turns Dorine plays the mediator and the advocate, the dissenter and the provocateur. As the not-so-evil stepmother Elmire, Elena Adcock glows with maternal sensibility and aristocratic decorum and grace. Her brother Clèante, played with precise wit by Dylan Hale, is a delightful presence as he dispenses wisdom to his flustered housemates. Fools in love Mariane (Christine Buccelli) and Valère (Julian Remulla) bring just the right goofy tenderness and steadfast attachment to an otherwise divided house, and as Mariane’s pink-clad brother Damis, Dominic Olivo delivers youthful male belligerence with an irresistible exuberance.
As Tartuffe, expert clown Brian Bock is a model of duplicity. Bock executes Tartuffe’s slime, sleaze, shifty eyes, and serpentine contortions with matchless comic instinct, drawing huge laughs as he highlights his own hypocrisy with the simplest bits of physical comedy and infuses such moments with the richly layered ironies that Molière’s text requires. When Tartuffe removes the cross he wears around his neck in order to seduce Elmire, he sees it as a way to relieve himself from obligation to his religious ethics, but we see the gesture as in fact revealing the superficiality of his spiritual commitment.
Ultimately, Eddy Fernandez-Baumann steals the show as Orgon, the dupe at the core of Molière’s narrative. Fernandez-Baumann at once enrages and disarms the audience with his perfectly thick speech, perpetually wide eyes, and, most of all, his unfaltering faith in his guru and master Tartuffe. Orgon is a portrait of blindness, and his story is a resounding call for independent thought. Orgon, despite his good intentions, fails and fails again to discern lie from truth, and exploitation from dedication, and his folly awakens us to the dangers of absolute trust and dependent thought as they threaten us even in the close quarters of home.