Review: Tartuffe, with a Texas twist

New turf, same game: At Post5, theater's favorite hypocrite grovels to conquer

In the last month or so, Tartuffe director Tobias Andersen has approached me a couple of times, sparkling with excitement about his latest show: “Our version is set in Moliere, TEXAS!” he declares with a wink.

It’s no wonder Andersen rushes to correct preconceptions about Tartuffe. Audiences are more than familiar with this title, they’re downright used to the 17th-century rhyming relic. The name means “hypocrisy” as clearly Faust references soul-selling. They also associate it with a period aesthetic—baroque as a joke, and full of French frippery. When I picture a production of Tartuffe, I see foppish cravats and powdered wigs. I hear whinnies and trills of courtly laughter and snooty stanzas of protracted poetry.

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Well…this is not your great- (great-great-great…) grandmother’s Tartuffe.

Post5‘s version is a recently conceived one, translated by Virginia Scott and adapted and edited by Constance Congdon in 2010. “Instead of being in Alexandrine couplets like the [Richard] Wilbur translation, Ms. Congdon has adapted [the verse] into iambic pentameter, which is quite accessible,” Andersen explains. “This adapation was first produced at the Two Rivers Theatre in New York when Aaron Posner was still artistic director. They decided to set it in Texas, and after I sounded the lines out loud a few times, I realized what a good idea it was! The twang just seems to work!”

It does, indeed.

For one thing, the Southern accents and affectations wrench the story right into a contemporary context, which makes performances feel almost like TV or movie roles rather than stage ones. Christy Drogosch as Elmire could easily keep pace with Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women; Tori Padelford’s Madame Parnelle could sip sweet tea right between Kathy Bates and a Golden Girl. Keith Cable as Orgon seems like he could clear brush and furrow brows with George “Dubya” Bush. Dennis Kelly as Valere has a higher-brow, more suave Southern flair. And Garland Lyons’ poker-faced, silver-tongued Tartuffe could cross swords with Kevin Spacey in the very current House of Cards.

You can’t quite do “Southern” without a few good ol’ boys, and Anderson found four doozies: Larry Wilder, Erik James, Dan Robertson and Jim Davis. Davis as Cleante plays a reluctantly plain-spoken confidante to the deluded Orgon with the manner of someone who has a lot of conversations outdoors, even seeming to kick at the dirt and squint into the sunlight. Robertson makes a great overly polite repo man Loyal, while Eric James as the Sheriff is John Goodman-ish, blustering in to set everybody straight. Between scenes, Wilder and Davis pick-and-grin through topical bluegrass tunes like The Devil Wears a Hypocrite’s Shoe.

All performances here are strong, but the MVP of this show may be Sarah Peters as Dorine, the irrepressibly sensible housemaid. She navigates a frenzy of onstage action with superb comic timing, and she even “sits in” on violin with the band.

The Southern-ness, though, serves as more than just a fun quirk for wardrobe and character development. It works on a deeper philosophical level, too. Hypocrisy tends to flourish wherever strong beliefs are found in the first place, and the American South’s charismatic Christianity may be the ideal climate. Jimmy Swaggart and PTL Ministries spring into contemporary memory as figureheads of Southern hypocrisy. Their methods? Similar to Tartuffe’s: Claiming folksiness, simplicity, sinner-hood. Then passing the collection plate.

The aforementioned Kevin Spacey character sums up the Southern mindset thus: “What you have to understand about my people is that they are a noble people. Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength; it is their weakness. And if you can humble yourself before them, they will do anything you ask.”

And so we watch Tartuffe playing an age-old game on newish turf: groveling to conquer.

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