The world will never lack for hypocrites and con men, nor for those who'd fall for them, giving Court Theatre's revival of Molière's Tartuffe as strong a shot at relevance as ever. But this second half of Court's Molière Festival turns out to be far superior, in concept and execution, to May's serviceable Misanthrope featuring much the same cast.
Director Charles Newell's Misanthrope was set in a fancy but free-floating idea of Paris, whereas Newell's Tartuffe occupies a more specific and familiar setting: Orgon heads an affluent African-American family in Hyde Park/Kenwood, just down the block from the theater. John Culbert's scenic design suggests a reasonably contemporary upper-class home, while Jacqueline Firkins's decidedly fashion-forward costumes place us perhaps just a few years into the future.
Orgon (A.C. Smith), previously a reasonable patriarch, has been figuratively taken in by the showy piety of supposedly humble Tartuffe (the perfectly oily Philip Earl Johnson)—to the point that Orgon has literally taken in the faker, much to the distress of Orgon's family, who all see through Tartuffe's machinations.
Orgon's wife, Elmire (Patrese D. McClain), and the saucy maid, Dorine (Elizabeth Ledo), both rightly suspect that Tartuffe is after Orgon's fortune—and proximity to Elmire. But when challenged, the stubborn Orgon digs in his heels, deciding Tartuffe deserves the hand of his daughter, Mariane (Grace Gealey), even though she's already promised to true love Valère (Travis Turner).
Richard Wilbur's delightful 1963 translation gets some tweaks to reflect the modern setting: Where Orgon's voice-of-reason brother-in-law Cléante (Michael Pogue) references "Ariston and Périandre," "Oronte, Alcidimas and Clitandre" as examples of truly virtuous practitioners of piety, here he brings up Dr. King and Malcolm X and rhymes Dalai Lama with Obama.
And putting Tartuffe in the here-and-now allows the cast to get away with some contemporary flourishes, particularly the terrific Ledo, whose driving portrayal of Dorine as some kind of Eastern European sparkplug makes up for her use as furniture in The Misanthrope, and McClain, who gets to turn inspired physical comedy into real emotional hurt in the crucial scene in which Elmire entraps Tartuffe to prove her case to Orgon once and for all. And Smith brings the vital gravitas to convince us of his character's stubborn intractibility and the foolishness it leads to. Even the racial resonances feel better thought out, more deliberate, here. It's a strong satire that shows its relevance without forcing it.