"Tartuffe" at Arena Stage detonates a ton of dramatic TNT.
It is outrageously daring, subversively funny and breathtakingly inventive. Without ever violating the essence of Molie re's comedy, the brilliant Rumanian director Lucian Pintilie pushes and stretches the work to the limits. If any crevices remain unexplored, it will take an industrious detective, indeed, to find them.
The study of a hypocrite in monk's clothes and the fanaticism he fans in a prosperous 17th-century French family, the play expands progressively under Pintilie's guidance to depict a whole world in chaos. The staging is pregnant with imagery that harks back to the Garden of Eden and forward to Armageddon. In any season a production of this boldness would be welcome. But at a time when the country is undergoing a revival of religious demagoguery and moral absolutism, "Tartuffe" proves positively salutary.
It is also a welcome instance of regional theaters sharing their riches. After seeing Pintilie's original production at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis last summer, Arena's producing director, Zelda Fichandler, promptly engaged him, his inspired set and costume designers, Radu and Miruna Boruzescu, and six of the key actors in the cast to recreate their work here. Fichandler's enthusiasm was well founded. The one crucial difference in the equation -- the Guthrie production unfolded on a thrust stage, while Arena's takes place in the round -- has only further activated Pintilie's imagination. His audacity continues to burn scorch marks in the floor.
Despite the play's title and Tartuffe's status as the snake in Molie re's comedic grass, that self-flagellating rogue is not the chief character. That honor belongs to the prosperous Orgon (Richard Bauer), who has scooped the plaster saint off a church floor and virtually enshrined him in the bosom of his family. Orgon is anything but the benevolent patriarch. Like all the creatures on Molie re's honor roll of boobs, he is rash and hotheaded -- a petty tyrant, quick to see only what he wants to see. And he sees the duplicitous Tartuffe (Harris Yulin) ringed in halos.
Before long he has pledged his daughter (Katherine Leask) to Tartuffe, disinherited his son (John Leonard) in favor of Tartuffe, put all his worldly goods in Tartuffe's hands, and driven his faithful wife (Harriet Harris) dangerously close to Tartuffe's sweaty loins. Orgon has a galloping case of folly and it is Pintilie's contention that folly is a highly communicable disease.
Indicatively, the stage, the aisles, even the walls at Arena have been covered with antiseptic white institutional tile. This may be Orgon's house, but it is also the house of bedlam. The actors start out commedia dell'arte style -- slightly discombobulated and ever so lightheaded -- as if they have been whiffing nitrous oxide in the wings. But in short order the giddiness takes on a maniacal edge, as the characters attempt to regain their footing in a society turned topsy-turvy.
Pintilie does not abjure slapstick. Indeed, much of "Tartuffe" is robustly entertaining. But he uses slapstick as a measure of the imbalance that Tartuffe's cool posturing induces in others. If bodies are constantly going wham, splat and kerplunk, it's because the characters' rational thought processes have been seriously short-circuited. Farce, in Pintilie's hands, is a blueprint of psychic madness.
Tartuffe, alone, is supremely controlled. For this production, he is lodged in the bowels of the theater, sealed off from sunlight by an ominously efficient trapdoor. His first entrance is preceded by thundering organ music, clouds of incense and a whip-cracking acolyte. Then he emerges -- eyes squinted, hair matted, face set in an expression of poisonous piety. It is the deliberate stillness that is so unsettling. This Tartuffe uses silence as a weapon, a provocation. He is the void that alternately repels and attracts.
By acknowledging the man's hypnotic appeal, Pintilie makes the play's celebrated seduction scene perversely erotic. At her wit's end, Orgon's wife, Elmire, has concluded that the only way to expose Tartuffe is to submit, one more time, to his lascivious advances. Hiding her husband under the table, she steels herself for the ordeal. In most productions, the age-old ploy is a pretext for broad, predictable high jinks. Instead, Pintilie lets it get dangerously out of hand -- introducing Tartuffe's impassive manservant (Peter Francis-James) into the action, having him toy with Elmire, too, and then slowly dissolving the good woman's will to resist. In the sudden hush that overtakes the audience, you can hear the slightest rustle of her silk dress.
What Pintilie has done -- here as elsewhere -- is to restore the work to its rank as a profoundly disturbing comedy. (In Molie re's day, only the intervention of Louis XIV saved the play from the wrath of the Church.) It would be unfair to reveal all his surprises. But the production, which starts out in the 17th century and progressively acquires the trappings of today (a Visa card among them), ends on a spectacular note. At the Guthrie, a Duesenberg, bearing the king's messenger and last-minute salvation crashed through the back wall and the house came tumbling down. Meanwhile, a full boys' choir sang away celestially. Arena keeps the choir, but literally looks to the skies for its equally ironic, equally cataclysmic, denouement.
The performances are as masterful as they are original. Bauer ties his body into a Gordian knot and builds his speeches into towers of babble. Harris has the sublime beauty of Japanese porcelain, on which she stunningly etches the ravages of rape and pillage. And Yulin wraps himself confidently in self-restraint until he can stand it no longer and he shoots his hand up milady's skirt.
Isabell Monk invests the sassy, back-talking maid with a refreshing dollop of street smarts. Francois de la Giroday finds the kinship between a typical Molie re swain and the scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz." Leask is marvelous as the daughter, a talking/walking doll badly in need of oiling, or maybe a spanking. And isn't that Mark Hammer -- dressed rather like Queen Victoria for a funeral, if not Victoria herself -- as that mound of peremptoriness, Madame Pernelle?
For a production that stirs up so much frenzy, churns up so much laughter and produces so much debris, it may seem inappropriate to talk of elegance. But that adjective is somehow unavoidable. Richard Wilbur's gracefully rhymed translation is certainly part of it. So are the Boruzecus' costumes and sets, which have an austere and beautiful formality about them. In the end, however, the elegance is Pintilie's and it comes from the truthfulness of his art and the coherence of his dauntless vision.
We will be measuring productions of Molie re against this one for many years to come. Tartuffe, by Molie re. Translation by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Lucian Pintilie. Sets, Radu Boruzescu; costumes, Miruna Boruzescu; lighting, Beverly Emmons. With Richard Bauer, Mark Hammer, Harriet Harris, John Leonard, Katherine Leask. Francois de la Giroday, Richard S. Iglewski, Isabell Monk, Peter Francis-James. At Arena Stage through April 14.