CSUB’s ‘Tartuffe’ revival is full of rich humor

Molière’s Tartuffe is a standard that gets too few revivals. We need such reminders of the hypocrisy all around us because the observation of human manners is timeless, its relevance current today. We are lucky that the CSUB Theater Department is offering it up to the Bakersfield community this weekend, having opened Thursday, November 4, and continuing through Sunday, November 7.

The language is one of the stars of Molière’s comedy. The Richard Wilbur translation not only preserves the wit and elegance of the French but adds humor available only in English with its greater flexibility, especially in the realm of rhyme. And rhymed couplets, so difficult to maneuver in English without sounding like something from the nursery, in Wilbur’s translation, have all the skill of a Pope or Byron.

The true joy of watching this production, however, lies in the direction and delivery of the actors. Timing is all in this sort of comedy, and if the delivery lags so does the laughter. As they say, farce is tragedy played at 100 RPM, and this production clips right along at 101 RPM. The highly caloric language of Molière comes out crisp, precise; for the most part we take it all in, although we who are used to the fast food of contemporary literature (and TV) may have difficulty at times digesting the dish upon dish of rich humor we are served. Clearly, the voice coaching the students received was excellent, and so was the script analysis.

The set design and costumes serve the play well, and the director makes full use of the entire stage (a sort of spare baroque effect), side to side, upstairs and downstairs, and even the furniture. (It was good to know that when Madame Pernelle’s well-mannered lapdog was tossed in a bench seat and left there for what seemed like too long, that, as the program tells us, “No animals were harmed or detained in closed dark spaces.”) As one character reminds us, we should not rely on appearances in our judgments, since we know that the austere black-and-white Puritan costume of the unctuous Tartuffe makes a stark visual contrast to the lace cuffs, plunging bodices, and velvet of the other characters’ dress, but this is only his hypocritical show.

Zoe Saba’s direction is to be applauded. All the actors are perfectly cast, with a kind of commedia dell’ arte aptness. Missy Lonsinger as Madame Pernelle is part pretentious Polonius and part oblivious Lady Bracknell, courageously managing not to be upstaged by her panting and precious, onyx-eyed pup. Orgon, played by Justin Thompson, is the blind but endearing fool who does his best to be cuckolded by Tartuffe. There are two stars of the show. The first is Dorine the impertinent maid, played by Jessica Boles, who provides a withering commentary on the action, both chorus and comedienne. The second is the oily Tartuffe himself, played by Miguel Torres with a kind of light-switch agility, turning quickly from his pious, hair-stroking obsequiousness to his true character as leering, sneering, nearly victorious villain.

Go see it. This is the way Molière should be played.

— Richard Collins, Dean of Arts and Humanities, CSUB