Romanian director Lucian Pintilie has given Moliere's ''Tartuffe'' a good swift kick and bounced the 17th-century satire squarely into the 20th century. Without altering the translated text a whit, Pintilie has stripped the classic French farce of its lorgnettes and powdered wigs and infused it with fresh political urgency.
Under the telltale facade of an art deco wall clock, the director has twisted Moliere's comedy of religious hypocrisy - so controversial when first performed in Paris in the 1660s that it was banned - into a hilarious but disturbing view of a totalitarian state resonating with unmistakable allusions to contemporary Eastern Europe.
The resulting production at the Guthrie Theater - which is likely to be remounted in New York and Washington this season - is unlikely to appeal to traditionalists. But for those nonpurists who prefer their classics with an au courant bite, Pintilie's ''Tartuffe'' is to be treasured.
''Tartuffe,'' the tale of one of the most famous comic con men in all of dramatic literature, tells of a swindler masquerading as a holy man who dupes a bourgeois Parisian out of his fortune, his daughter, and - most significant - a secret cache of politically damaging documents. But Moliere's comedy is also a potent tale of deception, hypocrisy, and power. Without sacrificing a bit of the bawdy humor, Pintilie, working with a highly capable cast, pays homage to this darker theme.
On the Guthrie's giant thrust stage, decorated in an austere white tile set by Radu Boruzescu - which echoes the play's description of a ''madhouse with the keeper gone'' - Pintilie spills raucous physical humor that only reinforces Moliere's intent. The very first scene, which sends a bushel-basketful of apples tumbling onto the stage and the troupe of actors in clownish white-face squealing after them, unleashes ''Tartuffe's'' havoc. Yet the laughs this production earns are those of the playwright, not merely a director's tricks. For instance, when one character laments being ''driven to the step I'm taking, '' he literally hops up stairs.
The production that deceptively began as simple farce, however, starts immediately to unravel into something far knottier. The abstract period costumes , wigs, and white face designed by Miruna Boruzescu (wife of set designer Radu) subtly yield to modern dress in a visual reinforcement of the play's ageless nature. By the play's end, Pintilie has littered his stage with 1930s-style mobsters, complete with gleaming black roadster.
The production takes a turn for the serious when Tartuffe finally appears in Act III. Pintilie has chosen to send him on as a pseudo-Christ figure, with streaming hair and bleeding palms, that is at once macabre and comic. Harris Yulin's hooded-eyed portrayal of this Messianic impostor captures the charismatic power essential to the character. In one scene, Tartuffe is seen washing a beggar's feet and healing the lame.
But it is in the final scene, the play's climax, that Pintilie's meaning, like a cuckoo at last sprung from a clock, becomes noisily clear. Here the director's theme of a totalitarian church-state rushes to the fore as a Dolby-enhanced stereo thunders and the steely roadster crashes through a tile wall. In the scene, complete with a Judas kiss of betrayal, Pintilie reveals Tartuffe's heretofore silent servant as a spy who not only shoots his master but utters the play's closing speech - long considered Moliere's deus ex machina homage to Louis XIV - in an ominous revivalist style. Lest the horror get the upper hand, Pintilie, in one of the few overstated directorial choices, sends in members of the Minnesota Boy Choir dressed in Keystone Kops outfits to sing sweetly above the fray.