Laugh to keep from crying

Butte College Performing Arts brings Molière's great comedy to the black box

Valère (Isaiah Hamilton) comes courting Mariane (Claire Sobon).

Valère (Isaiah Hamilton) comes courting Mariane (Claire Sobon).

Photo by Brittany Waterstradt

Butte College Performing Arts presents Tartuffe, Thursday-Saturday, May 7-9, 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, May 10, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$15 (available at Butte College bookstore, 895-2994)
Black Box Theatre
Arts Building Butte College 3536 Butte Campus Drive

The most successful practitioners of hypocrisy and deceit often target the well-meaning and naïve, but they might find even lusher pickings among the proud and self-deceiving. That may be a sad commentary on human foibles, but it also makes for good comedy and satire. Even back in 1664, French playwright Molière recognized this fact and wrote one of his most brilliant plays to illustrate the inner workings of hypocritical exploitation.

Tartuffe is a play rich in verbal wit and incisive in its examination of the interaction of deceit, greed, pride and arrogance. The basic setup is delivered in the exposition-laden opening scene, in which the family and servants of a nobleman, Orgon (Christopher Sullivan), and his mother, Madame Pernelle (Jennifer Caraway), lament the fact that Tartuffe (Stephen Jaworski), a deceitfully religious hypocrite, has inserted himself into the affairs and affections of Orgon’s household to the point of disrupting wedding plans for Orgon’s daughter, Mariane (Clarice Sobon), and her noble suitor, Valère (Isaiah Hamilton).

The dialogue, masterfully translated into English by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Wilbur, is written in rhyming couplets, and the actors, under the direction of Barry Piccinino, deliver their often-complex lines with well-honed smoothness. Although in some cases during the production’s first dress rehearsal Monday (May 4), the overzealous application of stage accents gave one the feeling of watching actors at work (which is what I was doing) rather than simply hearing words spoken naturally by characters (which is where things will hopefully have evolved by opening night).

But the characters did shine through, with one of the most interesting being Dorine (Brittany Esquivel), an outspoken housemaid whom Molière endowed with the ability to speak truth to power much in the way a court jester might be allowed to contradict or mock his noble masters without fear of consequences. When Orgon has announced that he will give his daughter to Tartuffe in marriage, Dorine tells him: Doesn’t it seem to you a trifle grim/to give a girl like her to a man like him?/When two are so ill-suited, can’t you see/what sad consequence is bound to be?/A young girl’s virtue is imperiled, sir/ when such a marriage is imposed on her/For if one’s bridegroom isn’t to one’s taste/it’s hardly an inducement to be chaste.

But Orgon is too dazzled by Tartuffe’s false piety to take her seriously, and so the family must work out a different plan to reveal the deceit behind his claims to godliness. Complications ensue, and in the unfolding of those complications Molière reveals much insight into human nature and the relationships of men and women, and parents and offspring, and authorities and underlings. Tartuffe may be a complete hypocrite and deceiver, but his greatest moment of hypocrisy paradoxically occurs when he delineates the exact truth about his own character to Orgon—“Yes, brother, I’m a wicked man, I fear: A wretched sinner, all depraved and twisted, the greatest villain that has ever existed”—who, of course, doesn’t believe him.

The themes of deceit, trickery and paradox keep the play interesting and entertaining throughout, and the richness and wit of the language make it a delight to hear. But this is classic theater, so one also expects some spectacle. This production—with lavish costumes by Joshua Roach, and a large, impressive castle’s interior with massive doors and marble floors designed by David Beasley and lit by Cameron Hoffman—provides plenty of visual interest to go along with the sumptuous dialogue and clever plot twists.

For those unfamiliar with the play, I won’t reveal too much, but I will say that it’s nice to see natural human goodness win out over religious hypocrisy even if it takes some elaborate deceit to make it happen.