Moliere’s “Tartuffe” is most often billed as a comedy about hypocrisy (its original subtitle was “The Imposter”), but watching Boho Theater’s witty and energetic new production, I realized what it’s really about: terrible houseguests. The title character is the worst guest ever: not only does he eat and drink mightily, alienate the help, and overstay his welcome, he also tries to seduce his hostess and, in the end, nearly takes possession of the whole house.
This nightmarish scenario begins when well-to-do Orgon (Sean Thomas) takes in a penniless rogue, Tartuffe (Jeremy Trager), who poses as a prayerful penitent while secretly seething with lust and greed. The rest of the household can see through their guest’s facade, but Orgon and his overbearing mother (the superbly imperious Daria Harper) believe him to be a saint. Even when the saint makes a pass at Orgon’s wife (Christa Buck), his hold on the trusting, good-hearted patriarch remains strong. “Be intimate with her!” Orgon cries, failing to understand just what it is he’s offering.
The script is hilarious, and the strong ensemble cast bats Moliere’s rhymed couplets (translated by Ranjit Bolt, and still rhyming) back and forth with verve. But the show’s greatest strength lies in its stylized-yet-nuanced depiction of relationships within the household. Orgon may be a fool, but Thomas’s portrayal of his innocent enthusiasm for his new friend and deep fondness for his wife and children makes him three-dimensional and warm. His silly and touching interactions with his daughter, played by Devan O’Mailia, are particularly endearing. Similarly, Tartuffe may be a thoroughly rotten knave, but Trager’s bad houseguest is so intelligent that his virtuosic villainy comes to seem almost admirable.
Rounding out the production’s pleasures, the intimate space of Theater Wit has been transformed into a comfortable drawing room (scenic design is by Chad Bianchi), and the actors are decked out in Steampunk-inspired duds (designed by Kate Setzer Kamphausen). A verbal and visual treat, “Tartuffe” delivers its warning against freeloaders in the most delightful way.