Molière’s Satiric Comedy “Tartuffe” Introduces Fake Saint to Jesuit University

Story and Photos by Diane Andrews

Everyone and his uncle knows Shakespeare. Lesser known to those who are not theater aficionados and are without a French connection, is the prolific French dramatist Molière, regarded as the creator of modern French comedy.

Santa Clara University’s (SCU) current production of “Tartuffe” is a timely opportunity to enjoy what some regard as Molière’s most famous play. It opened at the Luis B. Mayer Theater on campus on March 2 and continues March 7 – 10 at 8 p.m.

“Tartuffe” is a satiric comedy relevant today even though written more than 350 years ago in 1664 during the reign of Louis XIV. It is the first time in nearly 15 years that the university has staged a play by Molière.

“It seemed high time we welcomed him back to Santa Clara!” said “Tartuffe” director Michael Zampelli, SJ. “More importantly, I was compelled by the play’s treatment of the relationship between hypocrisy and gullibility, between those people who ‘put on an act’ to advance themselves and those who find themselves so in need of believing in something that they will ‘give away the store.'”

Zampelli, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, explained that while the play’s original focus was on religious hypocrisy in 17th century France, the SCU production highlights the dynamics of hypocrisy more generally.

The dialogue has been cleverly updated.

“I love you as much as rock stars love weed…. I love you as much as politicians love lying,” banter family servants Philippe (Dylan Santana) and a very spunky Dorine (Juliette Levy) at the opening of  “Tartuffe.”

The main character is Tartuffe himself, whose very name has come to designate one who feigns exaggerated honesty and virtue, one who is a charming imposter—a hypocrite who hoodwinks people.

“You’re going to be Tartuffed,” Dorine warns Orgon, her aristocratic employer, at one point.

“Presently, we are steeped in a climate where we are having a hard time communicating—what is true? What is false? What is mere show?  Like the character Tartuffe in the play, certain forces in our own world have changed the climate in which we live and move,” said Zampelli. “This production, a comedy, aims to give us the space to take a look at ourselves and laugh at the mess we make of things.”

The plot of “Tartuffe” revolves around Orgon, head of a well-to-do French family. He falls for the religious hypocrite Tartuffe—a wolf in saint’s clothing, a criminal worming his way into Orgon’s pocketbook and family. Orgon (Derek Sikkema) even promises Tartuffe (Quintin Chambers) the hand of his daughter, Mariane (Alexa Rojek). Yet, all the while spouting piety, Tartuffe attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Marie Sadd).

“I can’t look at you without admiring the Almighty,” Tartuffe tells Elmire, advancing towards her. “Why should a saint be any the less human?…The real culprit is your enchanting beauty.”

Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle (Madeline White); his brother-in-law, Cleante (William Gunn); and the housemaid, Dorine, all warn Orgon of Tartuffe’s hypocrisy. Yet his eyes will not be opened to Tartuffe’s deceit—until Elmire takes aggressive action to expose the fake saint.

“How could I ever have been taken in by that person’s story, fallen for that line? How could I have been so duped?” was undoubtedly what Orgon thought at the comedy’s close. Indeed, who has not felt that way?

Don’t think because the admission price is so reasonable ($20 general admission, $15 seniors and $10 students) that the production is not up to professional standards. The sophistication of the set, lighting, costumes and cast of 11—all SCU students—is impressive.

Characters completing the cast: Orgon’s son, Damis (Patrick Ocock); Mariane’s fiancé, Valère (DJ Lambert); and Tartuffe’s servant, Laurent (Liam Abbate).

Set designer Jerald Enos, associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, described the set as Baroque with a 1950s mid-century twist. The portraits inside two large wall frames change from scene to scene, picturing such notables as Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, Molière and Tartuffe.

“The set is a real collaboration. It’s an opportunity for students to work firsthand with faculty and staff,” said Enos.

Costume shop manager and SCU lecturer Patt Ness describes the costuming as “an eclectic, playful reinterpretation of the play.” Guest costume designer Naomi Arnst, costume director at Cal Shakespeare, said that the costumes are based on high fashion (the 2017 fall collections of Dior) combined with Lord & Taylor designs.

For tickets to “Tartuffe,” visit www.scupresents.org. Next on the SCU playbill: “The Glass Menagerie” May 11 – 19 and “Legally Blonde” June 1 – 9.