Last summer, Becca Lustgarten began to feel as if something was missing from her life.
The 26-year-old Boston University graduate who had relocated to Los Angeles recalled homing in on a void that she had previously filled by learning, acting and being part of a community of like-minded friends.
Research and conversations with colleagues led Lustgarten to the South Coast Repertory Acting Intensive Program.
"I feel like something special happens when performers allow themselves to step into a room and not have all the answers," she said. "It's a release of sorts to give yourself over to someone who might know better, differently or more than you. It's like working out for athletes — keeps your muscles strong."
Based on her efforts in the eight-week summer course, Lustgarten was invited back to the Costa Mesa venue for recent roles in "Death of a Salesman" and "A Christmas Carol."
Although originally tapped to serve as a reader during the theater company's auditions for "Tartuffe," Lustgarten also bagged the role of a servant. She is now among a cast of 14 who will be on SCR's Segerstrom Stage from Saturday through June 8. Friday night's show is invitation-only.
Lustgarten recounted studying and writing papers about the Molière classic and even watching a college production of it. Nothing prepared her for director and Paris native Dominique Serrand's take on the dark comedy, though.
"When I sat and observed rehearsals, I found that it was funny and nauseating and terrifying," she said. "I think this is an extremely special production. I haven't seen 'Tartuffe' done this way before."
The play is also of particular significance to David Emmes and Martin Benson, SCR's founding artistic directors. Five decades ago, the pair, then recent graduates of San Francisco State College (now university), sat down at a diner and drafted a business plan over a meal. Their meeting resulted in what is today known as SCR.
"Tartuffe," which follows a household as its masters fall under the spell of a pious fraud, was the venue's first show, and so its selection to celebrate the theater's illustrious history and conclude its 50th anniversary season seems appropriate.
Emmes and Benson oversaw a small company that toured in Orange County and Los Angeles with a characteristic comedia delle style, involving improvisation and masks for actors, which differs greatly from the show's upcoming run.
"'Tartuffe' is the epitome of Molière's theatre," Serrand wrote in an email. "The play was censured twice, and it reflects deeply the struggle of an artist who spent his entire life denouncing the vices of his contemporaries. It does reflect well on our society today; think about religious extremists who would like us to abide by their absolutism."
Kimberly Colburn, SCR's associate literary director, is a fan of the "singularity" of Serrand's artistic vision.
"Dominique is going back to what Molière is saying in terms of the philosophical implications of ... religious piety and hypocrisy, and he's really employing that in all the choices he makes across the production," she said. "The actors have a really interesting movement vocabulary — it's almost like a dance in places. The costumes are somewhat anachronistic. It's not a period piece but instead evokes the time period and yet carries a lot more weight.
"The set is very imposing. When you walk into the theater, it's almost like walking into a church. It's got a monolithic quality to it."
Written in 1664 and first performed in Versailles, "Tartuffe" was immediately suppressed by King Louis XIV — an aspect that was of interest to Serrand. Colburn, as the play's dramaturg, conducted research into the controversies surrounding the comedy and provided cast members with information packets, some of which even touched on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as evidenced in the story.
Having watched a few run-throughs, she finds it hard to write off characters, no matter how small their part. Each person, even if cast in a non-speaking capacity, adds to the intensity, fear or tension on stage.
Lustgarten plays this type of low-key but critical role, as does James MacEwan of Huntington Beach. The actor, originally from South Africa, belongs to the household staff and then portrays an officer toward the end of the play.
It's been just over three years since MacEwan traveled to Long Beach, where he planned to spend six months with a friend. But the actor, who has played roles in "Mamma Mia," "The Rocky Horror Show" and "Grease" in his home country, met his now-wife instead and decided to stick around.
"I knew I'd have to start again from the bottom in the United States," he said. "But I don't mind doing that. I don't mind taking the smaller roles because there's a very big learning curve, and I'm watching people that know the writer's style, and working with the director is invaluable."
Like Lustgarten, he became involved with "Tartuffe" after participating in SCR's Acting Intensive Program and believes that Serrand's bold direction makes for a truly muscular performance, a "roller coaster."
Colburn agreed. Being aware that Serrand's was not a lighthearted approach, she admitted to uncertainty about how viewers would react. But she was in for a surprise when previews kicked off.
"Audiences were able to laugh and enjoy the spectacle of the whole thing, and yet Dominique's message really comes across," she said. "It's a play that entertains while also giving you something to think and talk about. It really invites the best of what theater does. We make a big, fat show, and I just really love it."
If You Go
Where: Segerstrom Hall, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday from May 17 to June 8; there will be no evening show on closing day
Cost: $22 to $72
Information: http://www.scr.org or (714) 708-5500