It isn’t until the very end of Des McAnuff’s production of “Tartuffe,” which opens the 2002 La Jolla Playhouse season, that the director justifies his brash approach. Up to that point, McAnuff has delivered a monotonously over-zealous rendering of Moliere’s satire on religious hypocrisy, playing it as a high-pitched, even screechy farce with an abundance of cheap bawdiness. Then comes the finale, staged with the director’s usual gift for visual splendor. McAnuff extends Moliere’s ending, adding a pantomime of an execution that reflects back on what he’s been up to all along, playing with extremes. The provocative twist doesn’t quite make up for the production’s defining abrasiveness, but it does at least explain it.
The production begins harshly and never lets up. McAnuff casts a man, John Campion, in the role of family matriarch Madame Pernelle. She scolds those around her for not having faith in the pompously pious Tartuffe (Jefferson Mays), whom her son Orgon (John Getz) has invited into their home and who has quickly become a finger-pointing irritant to all.
It’s the nature of Madame Pernelle’s scolding that’s notable: No gentle chiding this, nor even a display of firm determination. Rather, she spews forth her views with feverish ardor, literally chasing grandchildren Damis (Jimmi Simpson) and Mariane (Nadia Bowers) in circles. When her mute sidekick gets in her way, she gives her a solid whack with the black fan that matches her ensemble.
That’s the tone of this whole show. This is wrathful Moliere, minus the search for balance that usually defines French classical comedy. In this production, even the voice of reason and moderation, Cleante (Jonathan Adams), speaks in bellowing rhetoric as he attempts to convince his brother-in-law Orgon that he’s been duped by the deceptive Tartuffe.
How extreme is the work? In the scene leading up to Tartuffe’s entrance, one of the most famously delayed in all of drama, the servant Dorine (Paget Brewster) crouches over a wine glass, fills it with urine and places it on a carefully appointed table for the guest to drink.
Mays, as the titular hypocrite to end all hypocrites, deserves a lot of credit for living up to this introduction. He takes the angry descriptions of his absurdities and more than does them justice.
McAnuff helps by having him enter carrying a gigantic cross on his back, but Mays doesn’t really need the gimmicky assistance — he’s obviously capable of finding his own. He doesn’t just chew the scenery, he swallows it whole.
When he seduces Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Klea Scott), he’s all lewd lustiness, fingering the silver serving-tray covers as if they were breasts. When he’s caught, he doesn’t weep his apology but bawls it; when he gets the upper hand on Damis, he lords it over him by making funny faces while the boy is disinherited; and when he gets caught again, he responds with a fury that believably makes the vulnerable Orgon shiver with fear.
It’s an impressive performance, to say the least. It’s also something of an annoying one. His portrayal, and the show as a whole, is too effortful, too forced. And while Mays and Getz can pull off the outrageousness, the younger cast members often can’t. They transform Richard Wilbur’s rhyming couplets into shrill whines. An ill-timed spit-take is just one example of the general lack of comic chops.
All of this, of course, can be traced back to McAnuff’s approach here, which seems at its heart to be a political commentary. He’s depicting a world that lacks any form of moderation, that moves only from extreme to extreme. In the final act, Brill’s elegantly minimalist set, centered upon standing doorframes, twists back and forth as the household reacts to the chaos that has befallen it.
Even when the scales of justice seem to have found Moliere’s carefully plotted balance, McAnuff throws in his addendum, having the police place Tartuffe in a black hood, lay him on a stretcher and lead him to the guillotine, where a stone-faced king releases the blade. In case anyone begins to think this has to do with French history (their revolution was more than a century after Moliere’s time), McAnuff brings us back to contemporary times with strains of the Who.
This is a “Tartuffe” with something to say, but its articulation is wanting.