Harris Yulin, who plays the title role in Arena Stage's production of "Tartuffe," recalls with some fondness the staging of his first entrance in Minneapolis' Tyrone Guthrie Theater, where this production by Lucian Pintilie originated. Yulin appeared at the highest point of a three-level set on the Guthrie's vast thrust stage, revealed the scars of self-inflicted beatings on his bare back, and as he descended a ramp a rivulet of blood flowed from his hand down the stark white tile of the set. "Not bad," he says drily.
Not that he's complaining. In the arena at Arena he enters from below, "like Caliban," back bared, whip in hand. It's dramatic, if not quite the attention-getter he had in Minneapolis. But that's just one of the changes that had to be made when Pintilie transferred the production here, with six of the original actors and other parts filled with company members such as Richard Bauer, who plays the central role of Orgon.
"It was very difficult for everybody," Yulin says. "Lucian found after two or three weeks that it was wrong to try to reproduce what we had done in Minneapolis. It was more like starting from scratch."
Yulin, 47, has performed a wide range of roles in resident theaters all over the country, not to mention movies, such as "End of the Road," "Night Moves" and "Scarface." He's been King John and Oberon, and originated the role of Piet Bezuidenhout in "A Lesson from Aloes," which began its U.S. life at the Yale Repertory Theatre. He is also a director, a proclivity that, he admits, has him sometimes at odds with those who direct him.
He still objects to one of the more shocking choices Pintilie made for "Tartuffe" -- adding a third person to the scene in which the clergyman seduces his host's wife, Elmire. "I was furious at first," he says. "I think it doesn't allow the character to expose himself, which he does out of feelings for Elmire . . . He is looking for redemption in love. This way it may be funny, and shocking, but making it a me'nage a trois makes Tartuffe into a sort of devil . . . But I've learned to work with it."
Yulin says he was not happy with his performance at the Guthrie, and welcomed a chance to take another whack at it here. Now, two weeks into the run, he's finally beginning to think he's getting it right -- maybe. He prefers directing, he says. "You never have to go out there on stage and confront the moment of truth."
During his free hours in Washington, Yulin has walked all over the city, visiting the galleries but also doing a lot of people-watching. He has a favorite spot near the theater where teen-agers hang out after school, and he sits quietly listening to their conversations. He has another interest as well -- a movie being filmed here soon called "Good to Go Right Now," in which he plays a Washington detective on the vice squad. He is helping to rewrite the script and will be researching his character.
"My best years will be in the next decade," he says, smiling.