Arts Listings

‘Tartuffe’ at the Masquers

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 28, 2008


Because you are blind, you would rather others didn’t see.” The name of Tartuffe, Moliere’s creation, the title role in the most famous of French comedies, has become synonymous with religious hypocrisy. The Masquers have put up a fast-moving and very funny contemporary take on the play that made the Sun King laugh, using a flexible verse translation by Ranjit Bolt, now on at their playhouse in Point Richmond.  

It starts with a frozen tableau of a fam-ily in hilarious turmoil. When the spell is broken, the spiel begins, with Loralee Windsor as old Madame Pernelle laying down the law to the rest of the family. She’s a true believer, exhorting them to honor the itinerant preacher whom her son, pater familias Orgon (Robert Love, Masquers managing director), has become enthralled with and taken in by, alarming all but grandma Pernelle. The case for the prosecution is ably stated with slashing attitude and wit by maid Dorine, in a juicy and uproarious rendering by Alexaendrai Bond. 

“Your father clearly has gone insane;/ the Tartuffe bug has bit his brain!” she says. As the iambic tetrameter syncopates and the plot thickens, everyone talks about Tartuffe, but in the style of the older stage, we don’t see his face on stage (save a pious photo, framed on the bookshelf, praying with whitening knuckles) until well into act one. When he enters, dressed like a mortician in basic black with a violet display handkerchief, Keith Jefferds puts in perhaps his best performance, with unctuous voice and beady eye brightening at every chance to scavenge or usurp the fleshly wealth of the rich he preys on, a freelance spiritual adviser, a marvelous skulking coyote. 

When he and his pigeon General Orgon get together, it is a hysterical biddy session, what Orson Welles wryly dubbed “heterosexual camp.” The two strut and mince in mutual absorption, with Orgon wanting to give the hand of his beautiful young daughter (Laura Morgan as Mariane) to the preacher, instead of to her intended Valere (Greg Milholland). He evens offers to adopt Tartuffe as his sole heir. 

The situation seesaws back and forth, with Jefferds’ Tartuffe handling each denunciation with self-suffering jiu-jitsu, while turning the other cheek to smirk. He displays all the tricks of the televangelists, though with little of their cornpone. 

Finally, Orgon’s wife Elmire (Beth Chastain), for whom Tartuffe lusts, figures out a scheme to “pull his wool from your eyes,” to reveal the plaster saint as a randy sponge. Declaring “without scandal, there is no sin,” Tartuffe does a striptease, a not-so-saintly Chippendale’s routine. But the tables turn, then turn again, with a surprise cameo by the portrait of a very contemporary kind of political thespian. 

As the cast regards the visage of the actor-pol, someone intones: “we give thanks to our great leader/For saving us from bottom feeders.”  

Paul Shepard, formerly of UC Berkeley, has directed his cast well, ending up with an ensemble. Still, there are some inconsistencies and a few shrill notes. Even Robert Love at one point picks up the palsy of bobble-headedness from the young men of the Masquers. 

But it’s a rich show overall, far better at tapping Moliere’s comic wealth than the usual halfhearted, pumped-up academic and festival versions, which are often more hangdog than doggedly funny. It’s willing to worry the bone of language and situation until it yields up the marrow of humor, something more than slapstick with a happy ending.  



8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through April 26 at Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond.