Steven Epp is riveting in the title role of “Tartuffe.” As the faux-pious con man who wreaks havoc in a rich man’s house, Epp gives the role all of its customary cunning and forked-tongue eloquence. But he also imbues it with a kind of feral intensity seldom seen in this oft-produced classic.
Epp’s isn’t the only brilliant turn in the new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Moliere’s timeless satire on religious hypocrisy. A sharp cast inhabits Dominique Serrand’s emotionally heightened staging, and the results are both graceful and incisive. When we meet Epp’s Tartuffe, he’s already insinuated himself in the home of the wealthy Orgon. The clean lines and palatial proportions of the two-story set (by Serrand and Tom Buderwitz) suggest the master has a lot to give; indeed, Orgon, declaring himself a fervent disciple, has agreed to marry his daughter, Mariane, to Tartuffe – although it’s Orgon’s wife, Elmire, who has caught the scoundrel’s eye.
No wonder the household is divided about Tartuffe – while Orgon seems about to give away his entire fortune, Mariane and her true love, Valere, vow to disobey her father’s orders. The strongest opposition comes from the servant Dorine, who denounces Tartuffe as a “rodent” and a “toad” (the production uses David Ball’s crisp, witty translation.) Epp’s unctuous Tartuffe – revealingly clad (chest-baring costumes by Sonya Berlovitz), accompanied by sacred music (nice score by Corinne Carrillo), and flanked by two servants who seem extensions of his will (Nathan Keepers and Todd Pivetti, striking obsequious poses) – rebuffs their resistance with supreme confidence.
But there’s a seething sense of desire under his holier-than-thou façade. Whether he’s flogging himself, castigating a female servant whose exposed flesh offends him, or merely eating an apple, Epp exudes a kind of dark animal lust.
Serrand and Epp, formerly of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, have scored hits in Berkeley with earlier productions such as “The Miser.” But “Tartuffe” may represent their finest work here to date.
They make the pivotal scene, in which Elmire decides to expose Tartuffe, a stunning theatrical coup – one that mines the script for humor, but also reveals the devastation created in its wake.
The emotional shock waves are reflected throughout the cast, although Sofia Jean Gomez’s wounded Elmire carries much of the emotional weight. Suzanne Warmanen’s Dorine delivers her outrage in forceful outbursts. Lenne Klingaman’s desperate Mariane, Christopher Carley’s flustered Valere, Gregory Linington’s elegant Cleante, and Brian Hostenske’s choleric Damis make fine contributions.
Still, it’s Epp’s Tartuffe who drives the production’s hardest points home. In his portrait of a villain, Molière’s comedy becomes a chilling cautionary tale.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Tuesdays through Sundays; closes April 12
Tickets: $29 to $79
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org