Tartuffe the Televangelist
Tartuffe. By Moliere. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater. Starring Darryl Theirse, Steven Anthony Jones, Shona Tucker, Anika Noni Rose, Fannie Lee Lowe, and Roxanne Raja. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through July 18. Call 749-2ACT.

The dilapidated convention of rhyming dialogue, you might think, would be enough to keep directors from fooling around with the settings of Moliere's plays. If the dialogue is old-fashioned and formal -- the logic should run -- for God's sake don't put the characters in modern situations and expect them to sound natural. Is it tacky for a reviewer to quote himself? Because this is what I wrote about a local production of The Misanthrope last year:

The leap from Louis XIV's court to cell-phone Hollywood is small, at least in terms of ego and rotten ambition, but crossing that canyon with a theatrical style is another matter. Moliere was the Sun King's royal jester, the self-appointed satirist of social climbing at Versailles; but that was the 1600s, when it was OK to do rhyming verse. Not even poet-playwrights like Derek Walcott write whole plays in verse now for the simple reason that rhyming dialogue has seen its day. So watching an adaptation of The Misanthrope that claws costumes and dialogue into the 1990s but keeps Moliere's rhyme scheme is very odd.

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Moliere's satires are too good not to update, though, and the new version of Tartuffe at ACT claws the costumes into 1950s South Carolina, where a black upper class has prospered around Durham since the turn of the century. Orgon the susceptible bourgeois is now the black owner of a Southern mansion, who listens to Nat King Cole and Sinatra, has a daughter in love with a Latino greaser, and lets a televangelist-style shyster named Tartuffe look after his moral housekeeping.

And by God, it works. Charles Randolph-Wright has directed his cast of voices into an outrageous and almost musical comedy. The set looks like a lavish plantation home, with a sweeping staircase, high arched window, and white furniture. In the opening scene, Tartuffe enters with a flourish of his shiny red cape. This is part of a concept: Randolph-Wright sees the villain as a vampire, since vampires traditionally had to be invited into a household before they could suck any blood.

Orgon, the middle-aged patriarch, is in the process of compensating for his faded youth and influence by becoming exceedingly moralistic, and lets Tartuffe in as his confidant. The rest of the family, except Madam Pernelle, sees right through him. "There's true and false in piety, as in bravery," chants Cleante, a brother-in-law. "And just as those whose courage shines the most/ In battle, are the least inclined to boast,/ So those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly/ Don't make a flashy show of being holy."

By overplaying, by popping some of the rhythms, by investing each line with a physical flourish or cartoonish emotion, the actors make the rhyming ridiculous, so when a character needs to give a serious and strident speech like Cleante's, we're used to the rhythm, and the lines sound exciting rather than pompous.

Randolph-Wright also directed last year's Insurrection: Holding History, so he's good at farce. In fact, compared to that carnival of over-the-topness, his Tartuffe feels like a relaxing game of golf. Shona Tucker was in both shows, but as Orgon's wife, Elmire, she doesn't have to screech nearly as much as she did last year; and in an odd dress with spires like yucca leaves coming off her breasts she looks far more respectable and modest than she did wearing Insurrection's Bo Peep outfit. She also does a commanding job with her lines, especially when Tartuffe chases Elmire around the mansion.

Tartuffe himself looks like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. He wears a purple robe with a crucifix and golden rings and has an oily, lusty manner. But he moves and sounds like James Brown -- Darryl Theirse plays him with the same hard-working energy, matching the hot language of his first pass at Elmire with skips and kneelings and appeals to the Lord. He chants, "How could I look on you, O flawless creature/ And not adore the Author of all Nature," with such soulful fervor that your foot actually starts to tap.

The one white member of the household is Dorine, the maid. She's played in heavy makeup and a trashy Southern accent by Roxanne Raja. Her self-appointed role in the story is to keep Orgon's daughter, Marianne, from going through with marrying Tartuffe. Orgon wants Marianne to wed the preacher because he doesn't approve of her greaser boyfriend, Valere, but Dorine has her own opinions, and doesn't want her mistress to be miserable. She interrupts Orgon's matchmaking with wisecracks and physical comedy, posing saucily on the staircase when Orgon asks her to leave, jumping on him with both arms and legs, pitching her voice high and low to make fun of Tartuffe's opinions. She's supposed to be a thorn in Orgon's side, but behaves more like a bramble.

Steven Anthony Jones looks baldheaded and comfortably round as Orgon, and his bass preacher's voice offsets the others in a way that makes the rhyming sound almost like a fugue. Cleante covers the baritone range, Tartuffe's a tenor, Dorine's a soprano, and Orgon's son, Damis, cuts through the middle with a hard, almost boyish rap. His character seems out of place, although Gregory Wallace plays him with a wild-eyed intensity. The rhythms work, but the hip-hop swaggering just isn't very 1950s.

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