Bulgakov Battles Censorship In an All-Too-Relevant Tale

Censorship has been stifling artistic freedom for centuries. Currently, the radio is strictly monitored with strategically inserted pauses, and the reverberations of that Janet Jackson Super Bowl fiasco still affect television (editing the Rolling Stones, that’s just fucked up). At present, “Molière: A Cabal of Hypocrites,” a play about the strict control of theater productions in the 17th century, seems quite fitting. In his work, Mikhail Bulgakov, whose own career was ruined by authorities who didn’t appreciate his critical stance against the Soviet system, focuses on Molière’s ill-fated life and the restrictions put on his comedy “Tartuffe.”

Courtesy of UCSD Theatre and Dance Department
King of Kings: Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Molière: A Cabal of Hypocrites” traces the French playwright’s battle with censors — a topic the Russian author, writing under Soviet scrutiny, knew intimately. Teri Reeves (left) plays King Louis XIV.

Bulgakov’s play captures the series of happy instances and unfortunate calamities of Molière’s life, and uncovers the detrimental role of bigoted critics, particularly the Bishop of Autun, who objected to Molière’s depiction of a religious hypocrite in “Tartuffe.” Although Molière’s life was anything but peachy, Bulgakov finds humor primarily by using commedia dell’arte stock situations and characters. Samuel Stricklen puts his proficiently timed wit to good use as the hilarious Barthèlemy and Bouton, an actor in Molière’s troupe and the playwright’s henchman, respectively, who assumes the traits of a typical, well-versed commedia clown.

Under Barbra Berlovitz’s direction, the play retains a steady, engaging pace. The grand floor, columns, winding staircase and shifting movable furniture effectively represent both the king’s grand court and the actor’s backstage area. Lighting is used efficiently to supply ominous shadows. During the confession scene, in which the Archbishop Charron (Rufio Lerma) tries to get information from Molière’s former mistress Madeleine Bejart (Amy Ellenberger), the use of sharp, dark-to-light contrast and candles is particularly potent.

The cast deftly portrays their characters. Mark Smith is terrific as Molière; his transformation from a radiant, celebrated optimist to a miserable, disillusioned, ailing has-been is genuinely touching. Teri Reeves is perfectly domineering as King Louis XIV, bringing to the role both authority and an innate sense of merit. As Moirron, Walter Belenky suitably changes from a flirtatious, pompous provocateur to an insignificant wretch; Lerma menacingly channels Charron’s wily ways and his unholy desire for revenge against Molière; and Jennifer Chang, as the Honest Cobbler and King’s jester, works as the compassionate voice of reason, finding just the right level of non-syrupy sincerity.

“Molière: A Cabal of Hypocrites” is a tragicomedy that is at times moving and at other times quite humorous. It has an eclectic cast of characters: a king, an ass-kisser, a jester, a clown, a swordsman, a cult of clergymen and a troupe of actors. But above all, it provides an interesting (though disturbing) look at how easily artists’ reputations can be destroyed when they veer too far away from familiar standards.

“Molière: A Cabal of Hypocrites” will play at the Mandell Weiss Forum from Feb. 23 to Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. with a matinee showing at 2 p.m. on Feb. 25. For tickets or additional information, contact the box office at (858) 534-4574.