Marcus Gardley’s decision to relocate Molière’s 1664 comedy Tartuffe to present-day Atlanta, Georgia seems a smart one: Tartuffe, a charlatan holy man, becomes Archbishop Tardimus Toof, a sleazy preacher who wants to make a fast buck. Archibald Organdy is the rich owner of a fried chicken company, who Toof ‘cures’ from heart cancer, inspiring a religious zeal more dangerous than his previous sickly malaise. Organdy’s family – prodigal daughter Africa, camp son Gumper, and Peaches, his lusty lover – are less impressed.
Toof soon persuades Organdy of woman’s secondary place in the Biblical pecking order, depriving Peaches and Africa of their inheritance. He also attempts to ‘cure’ Gumper of his homosexuality – but I don’t believe for a moment this snappy, Instagram-loving young modern man would be so ready to embrace this.
Gardley’s script is largely written in sparkling verse, combining deep south African-American intonations with comic internal rhymes; it’s technically impressive, but the play is also hidebound by its form. Performances in Indhu Rubasingham’s premiere production are vast, physically excessive and often just shouty, as the cast blast through their lines and bang out their rhymes. Yet very few actually land real laughs, and characters are often too cartoonish to care about.
The exception is Sharon D Clarke who has a dignified yet badass poise as Toof’s wife; she has a brilliant scene with Adjoa Andoh’s Peaches, who delivers a righteous, hip-rolling smack-down of female body-shaming that has the audience whooping.
Lucian Msamati is slithery and fast-talkin’ as Toof, yet Gardley also appears to credit him with healing powers underneath all the lust and avarice. This makes Toof’s final blistering denunciation of God a more potent tonal shift, but one which feels almost tacked on. This play never really probes its own uneasy blurring between true healing, blind faith, and rank deception.