UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, or TDPS, is already onto its next production, fresh after the success of “70 Scenes of Halloween.” Now, the department is tackling Molière’s famous comedy, “Tartuffe.” An ensemble piece, “Tartuffe” is full of colorful, fleshed-out characters. The three standout characters are occupied by three UC Berkeley seniors: Shea Nolan, Drew Woodson and Claire Pearson.
Director Domenique Lozano sets the play in modern-day Los Angeles, and thus, the characters are modified to fit into that world. Orgon (Woodson) is the head of the household and a big-time movie producer who is going through a mid-life crisis after the passing of his wife. He meets a seemingly pure and religious man, Tartuffe (Nolan), at church and is so taken by him that he invites him to stay in his house. Dorine (Pearson), the former personal assistant of Orgon’s late wife, sees right through Tartuffe’s cons and works to reveal his true nature.
It is clear that these three actors are intimately familiar with their characters and have grown to respect their distinct qualities, whether they are admirable or not.
“(Orgon is) this extremely powerful man who has gone through so much in this short period of time that he’s just lost his mind and he doesn’t know how to be powerful anymore,” Woodson said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And the choices that he makes are just so incredibly dumb that it’s just so much fun to play.”
Orgon’s gulliability is the catalyst to Tartuffe’s attraction to him. Tartuffe takes advantage of his naivety to further his pursuits, his schemes ruthlessly heightened by how vulnerable Orgon is. Nolan expressed his fascination with all those sly details that make up this character.
“This is a person who has spent their entire life wearing masks. But every now and again, you get these little moments of who this person really is — you see a tiny crack — and that is so fascinating,” Nolan said. “At some point in this person’s life, everything failed him, and he decided — you know what? — I’m playing by my own rules.”
Meanwhile, Dorine is acting against both of these characters — Tartuffe in his manipulation and Orgon in his utter admiration for Tartuffe. Pearson was drawn to Dorine’s pragmatism, as well as her devotion and love for this family.
“(She is) very much the voice of reason when no one else can be the voice of reason,” Pearson said. “I really found how much of her power is just in her existence as a person in this world. The fact that she can exist in this world and have a say in what happens is really important because everyone else is of higher status, but they still let her speak and have an opinion.”
With complex characters to work with, each of the actors found freedom to explore their own ideas and interpretations with the assistance of Lozano’s directing style. They described the experience as being very much collaborative.
“She lets you try what you think and says go for it,” Woodson said. “She likes you to make big decisions and fail spectacularly.”
In fact, even the stage blocking in “Tartuffe” became a collaborative effort.
“Whatever instincts we have, she blocks around them,” Pearson said. “Everything that you will see was made up by us. Domenique added and made things look pretty, but as far as the blocking goes, it was pretty much fifty-fifty.”
Another major focus of the rehearsal process has been nailing the comedic element, which the actors found to be both essential to the play’s success and incredibly challenging to get just right.
“It’s very much like music. … You have all the marks you have to hit — there’s precise movements you want to make,” Nolan said.
And beyond the comedic parts of the play, the entire play’s being in verse proved another challenge. Different from anything the three of them have done, they’ve had to adapt to the rhythmic quality of the verses. While expecting it to sound “sing-songy,” they have found that it highlights the language of the dialogue in fascinating ways.
“(Verse) speaks to me in a way that sometimes contemporary texts don’t. What’s great about verse is that it’s written so that it reveals to you what it’s trying to say,” Pearson said. “Verse feels good in my body.”
For all of its complexity, “Tartuffe” comes down to its characters and their relationships, whether they clash or mesh. With characters so different, the play and its cast have worked to illuminate the themes that are being explored. And in “Tartuffe,” one of those major themes is morality.
“It’s a fascinating story on morality and what that means to (Tartuffe), what it means to (Orgon), what it means to the rest of the family,” Woodson said. “Everybody has a different sense of morality, and you really get to see that play out here.”
Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].