Constance Congdon’s 2008 verse translation of Molière’s Tartuffe into English rhyming couplets invites all kinds of interpretations. As Congdon said of its world premiere at the Two River Theater Company in New Jersey, where the show was set in a McMansion in Texas, “It sounded so Texan! Just put an accent on it!” In this new production at SBCC’s Interim Theatre, director R. Michael Gros has taken the translator’s advice and run with it, locating his version in the upper reaches of contemporary New Orleans society. From the moment that Annie Diehl opens her mouth as the resourceful servant Dorine, the audience knows that they are in for a wild ride, accent-wise. While Diehl’s broad approach verges on the country honk of Miley Cyrus (at times, I half expected Billy Ray to enter in boots, Wrangler jeans, and a flannel shirt), there’s something satisfying about the way her voice matches the character’s pushy attitude. As Madame Pernelle, Sara Beroff also provides the requisite unprincipled resistance essential to the dynamic of any Molière dilemma. In one of several comic references to the play’s contemporary setting, Tartuffe’s silent servant Laurent (Grant Harvey) sports an iPad, the better to keep inventory of all the possessions he plans to acquire through his audacious hypocrisy and imposture.
The star of this Tartuffe is unquestionably Tim Mahoney, whose performance in the title role is over the top in all the right ways. From the moment he enters, carrying a Bible and spouting pious inanities in a Southern accent, Mahoney becomes the focus of attention. Whether he’s engaged in slapping his own face or using reverse psychology to manipulate his victims, Mahoney’s Tartuffe behaves with an air of tremendous arrogance. When he’s exposed by Elmire (Ashley Saress Lemmex) and Orgon (James Stenger) as a two-faced rat, he simply slips into yet another persona, this one with a French accent of the most exaggerated absurdity. Ophir Katz brings a youthful physicality to the role of Orgon’s son, Damis, and Kaila Marie Carlstrom is fetching as the daughter, Mariane, but it is really the leads that carry this show. While it is fun to watch Dorine and Tartuffe tangle early on, it’s not until the grand seduction scene between Tartuffe and Elmire that we really see what this production can do. Jerry Vassallo as Cléante and Matthew Andreas as Valère serve to build tension, but it’s up to Mahoney to bring the big bursts of laughter to a head.