Holy sham 

Tartuffe trumps hypocrisy at Georgia Shakespeare Festival

Tartuffe never goes out of style. Alas.

Moliere's 336-year-old comedy of religious hypocrisy stays perpetually relevant, especially in the United States. It's almost as though the French playwright anticipated that the U.S. would generate an endless supply of Elmer Gantrys, Jim Bakkers and other falsely pious figures. The recent impeachment fiasco, with adulterers unmasked on either side of the political aisle, may have been even more than Moliere could have imagined.

The Georgia Shakespeare Festival presents the world premiere of Ranjit Bolt's rhymed and rapid-fire translation, and puts the play in a swank, 1920s setting with a luscious art deco set by Kathryn Conley. Between the period design and director Karen Robinson's light touch, Tartuffe comes across as a sprightly comedy along the lines of P.G. Wodehouse, although it takes a while to get to the good stuff.

A hypocritical Christian, the title character behaves like one of those con man gurus who leech onto the rich. Wealthy Orgon (Tim McDonough) is so impressed with Tartuffe's show of religious zeal that he installs the schemer in his estate, to the dismay of Orgon's family, including his second wife Elmire (Janice Akers), daughter Marianne (Danielle Grabianowski) and son Damis (a comically temperamental Damon Boggess). Tartuffe has taken over the household, enforcing strictures on behavior, covering the nude statues and installing a crucifix the size of a surfboard.

Moliere's target isn't just hypocrites but their sincere and unseeing dupes. Thus, the first section of the play has the sensible characters trying to reason with both Orgon and his dowager mother, whom Megan McFarland plays like the Marx Brothers' foil Margaret Dumont. Orgon now wishes Marianne to marry Tartuffe instead of her beloved Valere (Brad Sherrill), and she looks to the wisecracking lady's maid Dorine (Carolyn Cook) to think of a way out. As with many comedies of the upper class, the servant is the smartest person, and Cook makes Dorine wonderfully crafty, assertive and even flirtatious.

In this production, it's fully an hour before Tartuffe (Chris Kayser) takes the stage, and you feel as though you've been waiting too long for the show's headliner. But Kayser doesn't disappoint, proving a virtuoso of false piety. He hangs his head and humbly speaks of his hair shirt in the presence of others, then scratches his crotch and swaggers with self-satisfaction when alone.

But Tartuffe's lust for Elmire is his Achilles, uh, heel. Akers is both anxious and amusingly seductive in trying to trick Tartuffe into revealing his true colors. But when accused, Tartuffe simply plays the I-have-sinned-against-you card, playing up his guilt so much that Orgon sympathizes with him. By the play's final scene, Orgon's misplaced trust brings the weight of French law down upon him.

The dialogue moves quickly and wittily, thanks to the script's rhymed couplets of eight-syllable lines, which can have a pace and rhythm reminiscent of Dr. Seuss' verse. "What a canting fraud you are! When you were born, was there a star?" Elmire's brother Cléante (Allen O'Reilly) asks Tartuffe. Bolt's translation yields some deft phrases, as when Dorine declares "Such sobriety behooves a woman men have left in droves." It's like candy for the ears, or a musical with lyrics but no score.

But this production does have music, composed and performed by multi-instrumentalist Klimchak, and it provides many wrong notes. Weird sounds like toy pianos and odd percussion intrusively accompany the exits, entrances and speeches of the characters -- when Orgon heaps praise on Tartuffe, ghostly sounds warble like a high-pitched theremin, as if we couldn't guess at Orgon's loopy mental state from McDonough's zealous portrayal. I liked some of the music, like the piping, faux-religious, New Age-sounding strains, as well as the slinky bass lines during Tartuffe's would-be seductions of Elmire. But none of it fits the flapper era period that the production's set and costumes so elegantly evoke.

Otherwise, the GSF's placement of Tartuffe among tennis-playing, Prohibition-era aristocrats moves with grace and impeccable comic timing, although it can be long-winded in spots. In attacking hypocrites, Moliere himself proves to be not above reproach, with the play's climactic praise of the king amounting to little more than royal rump-kissing. The comedy also tends to proselytize in the name of moderation, but Tartuffe breezily demonstrates how that's preferable to the alternative. Can I get an "Amen?"

Tartuffe plays through Aug. 12 at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, 4484 Peachtree Road, with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2 and 8 p.m. Sun. $20-$26.50. 404-264-0020.

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