Molière’s play, “Tartuffe,” may be 354 years old, but its story fits just as well in the modern age. The UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, or TDPS, takes this famous 17th-century French comedy and places it right in present-day Beverly Hills. Seamlessly intertwined into its new setting, “Tartuffe” is as bold and colorful as the story calls for in TDPS’ take on it. Driven by the talent of the ensemble cast and the director’s vision, the production illuminates the nuances of this layered tale.
“Tartuffe” centers on the household of Orgon (Drew Woodson), who has been tricked by a con man, the titular Tartuffe (Shea Nolan). The story chronicles the rest of the family’s chaotic plot to expose his trickery — all led by the family maid Dorine (Claire Pearson). Directed by Domenique Lozano, TDPS’ production took the stage of Zellerbach Playhouse on Friday for its premiere.
The risky decision to place the story into a modern setting turns out to be more than effective, as it highlights the inane nature of the plot’s situation and adds depth to the already existing comedy. Notably, Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, becomes part of the plot; lines were added for characters to utilize her in order to further their motivations. And in a pivotal scene, Tartuffe instructs Alexa to play his “special video” — what appears is a montage of Tartuffe writhing around in red roses, as he attempts to seduce the character of Elmire (Amalia Sgoumpopoulou). It’s the epitome of absurdity and adds another level of humor to the utterly amusing scene.
The scenes of “Tartuffe” rely on the ensemble cast to succeed in their comedic timing while also moving the plot forward. TDPS’ cast is incredibly talented and effective in bringing this chaos to life. Yet, there are two actors who dominate the stage: Pearson as passionate and pragmatic Dorine, and Woodson as naive and irate Orgon.
Dorine is the first to see through Tartuffe’s facade and is the driving force working against his manipulation. She is everywhere, keeping tabs on everyone, sitting at the core of the plot. Pearson shines in this role, stealing the audience’s attention in whatever scene she’s in, whether she is giving a persuasive monologue or hiding in the background (a stellar decision by Lozano to place Dorine in scenes she’s not originally in). Pearson has a strong grasp on Dorine’s intellect and cleverness, conveying her power without raising her voice.
In contrast, raising his voice and expressing his anger make up much of Orgon’s character. Orgon is distracted by his love of Tartuffe and finds conflict with anyone who gets in the way of that, namely Dorine. Woodson’s portrayal of Orgon consistently teeters on explosive as he grapples with the character’s need for control. Anytime Orgon becomes angry (which is often), Woodson’s body shakes and his voice booms. The power in his voice is palpable and almost convincing, even as the audience knows he’s in the wrong. Woodson brings to life a character who is magnificently compelling to watch as he works against every other character.
And Pearson and Woodson together, in tension with each other’s motives, are transfixing. It’s the embodiment of how brilliant ensemble comedies can be when done well, with actors who have as firm of a grasp on their characters as Pearson and Woodson do.
“Tartuffe,” on paper, is a bustling, fascinating comedy of mistaken identity disarray. TDPS’ production brings that story to life in a confident and stimulating rendition, highlighting the play’s best details throughout. With productions often trying to revitalize old plays, not all updated versions are worth seeing. But TDPS’ “Tartuffe,” in its dynamic and bold packaging, undoubtedly is.
“Tartuffe” is playing at Zellerbach Playhouse through Nov. 18