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BWW Reviews: Brilliant TARTUFFE at Shakespeare Theatre Company

It's surprising that in its 45 years, D.C.'s venerable Shakespeare Theatre Company has yet to produce either of Molière's most famous plays. Perhaps, artistic director Michael Kahn suggests, they were waiting for the right one.

With the splashy new co-production of Tartuffe with the South Coast Repertory and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, they have found one - a brash adaptation by David Ball brilliantly directed by Dominique Serrand.

Promotion for the D.C. stint plays up the title role by Steven Epp as the religious flimflam man, as he previously took a Helen Hayes Award at the theater for his work in The Servant of Two Masters.

But everything seems dialed up a notch or two on stage, such that Epp here merely settles into one of many high points in a stellar cast, each seemingly leaping over the other in hilarious excess that at the same time seems perfect for Molière's intent.

In the ancient tale, Tartuffe is a sinister religious man who has infected a family such that the man of the house and his elderly mother swear allegiance, most of their property and even a daughter to him. Even so, that's not enough, as the intruder hopes to seduce the man's wife as well.

The rest of the family is aghast at this behavior and is bent on trying to show him for the fraud he is, but that's not so easy.

Epp is quite the snake as Tartuffe, literally slithering at times across the floor of the handsome set. But everything else is choreographed to the nines as well, such that the wailing Leanne Klingaman throws herself around the stage in the throes of despair like a wailing dervish; Suzanne Warmanen is an absolute storm as the wisest person on stage, the maid Dorine, who shakes and waves her fist as she bellows her truth.

And Michael Manuel rolls around in his brief scenes as the mean grandmother - affixed in a wheelchair (he later returns as a giant representative of the king).

A lot of the humor was built into the Moliere original, but it's heightened further by cast members like Christopher Carley, looking ridiculous in a flowered suit and thwarted in his attempt to marry his betrothed. And Ball's adaptation adds a modern flourish to Moliere's original rhyming couplets.

Working a half century after Shakespeare, Moliere was under stricter edicts. By royal decree, plays had to be performed in real time, in one location and with a single plot. Because of the scathing portrayal of a religious man, the play had to be rewritten three times (the present one features a changed ending).

Within these confines, Molière triumphed, as does this production, with a towering three story set with tall windows and taller doorway, designed by Serrand with Tom Buderwitz. It is lit with an eye toward a 24-hour illumination from outside by Marcus Dilliard. Sound designer Corinne Carrillo's birds command attention every time they tweet.

Serrand must be credited for choreography as well. It was Molière's intent to present the plays in visually arresting pairs. The director furthers this by strategically placing background characters, from a pair of maids to two Tartuffe henchmen, moving subtly or rearranging strategically in the background, maintaining this kaleidoscope of visual delight.

The costumes by Sonya Beriovitz are as spectacular as anything in the production, from Emire's sumptuous initial gown worn by Sofia Jean Gomez (last seen literally flying around the stage earlier this season as Ariel in The Tempest) to that standout Valere flower suit.

There seems a shift in tone from the first half of the play to the second, as the comic excesses settle down into the serious business of trapping this dangerous holy man. That the themes of Tartuffe play out today, 450 years later, with hypocritical family values spokesmen seemingly shamed each week, keep the play not only fresh but of vital interest.

Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

Photo: Sofia Jean Gomez as Elmire and Steven Epp as Tartuffe in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Molière's "Tartuffe." Photo by Scott Suchman.

"Tartuffe" continues at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall, 601 F St NW, Washington, D.C. through July 5. Tickets at 202-547-1122 or online.

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