Review: “The Liar” at Shakespeare & Company
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
Larry Murray: Those who love language are in for a shock when they see this farcical play about love and liars. David Ives has taken an absurdly dated 17th century French farce by Pierre Corneille, Le Menteur The Liar and brought it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. If you saw it at the Comédie Française where it is still performed, you would swear off costume comedies. But at Shakespeare & Company you will wonder why you hadn’t heard of it before. It’s an absolute delight.
Gail Burns: If George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, the main character, Dorante (David Joseph) is constitutionally incapable of uttering the truth, no matter the circumstances. And all of this is done in iambic pentameter, with never ending rhyming. It’s wordplay on speed.
Larry: I found it closer to The Three Stooges meet Shakespeare with its ridiculous slapstick and high faulting’ literary devices. It’s the first play in memory that appeals to both the lowest common denominator and the high scholarly pretensions, don’t you think?
Gail: I have often taken Ives to task for pandering to that low denominator in his original works for the stage, but here the challenge of writing in verse has helped him channel his inner word nerd. The writing here is both funny – as Ives always is – and erudite. And director Kevin Coleman has his actors jumping through physical as well as verbal hoops in the process.
Larry: Ives calls the play a “translaptation,” which he says is a portmanteau word, a cross between translation and adaptation.
As theatre, it is a hybrid bit of stoopid fun and I suspect he had fun himself as he flipped through his rhyming dictionary. He found more synonyms for “flatter” than I ever imagined,and his repeated use of unexpected words like bivalve, well, my eyebrow froze in an arched position. When Dorante bragged that he spoke ten languages, his servant Cliton (Douglas Seldin) says:”You NEED ten tongues, an onion and an ax the way you make minced meat of the facts then dish them out to folks like truth tartar.”
Gail: As our hero says, “Liars aren’t born Cliton, they’re fabricated.”
Larry: Can you summarize the play’s plot? I can’t. Partly because even as it was taking place I couldn’t figure it out, and besides it doesn’t matter, and for our readers it is better as a surprise, anyway. So much of the way the play is presented is vaudevillian, almost burlesque, especially the romantic situations. The actors at Shakespeare & Company all seem to have a knack for physical comedy in a way nobody else has yet mastered.
Dorante is chasing two beautiful Parisian women — Clarice and Lucrece — but he confuses the two and manages to embroil himself in a series of impossible situations. I even got confused as to who was who, the lies and deceptions fooling even the audience.
Gail: Except for Dana Harrison playing the twin maidservants, the lacivious Isabelle and the puritanical Sabine, each actor in this piece plays a single role and has a distinct look, so you can easily tell the players without a scorecard. Recently graduated law student Dorante – played by the remarkably handsome and multi-talented David Joseph – and his father Geronte (Jake Berger) have come to Paris to find the young man a wife.
But Dorante won’t be wed to just anyone, and almost immediately makes his own choice of prospective mate in Clarice (Alexandra Lincoln) whom he meets at the Tuilleries with her friend Lucrece (Emily Rose Ehlinger). Two immediate problems: Unbeknownst to Dorante, Clarice is already engaged to his volatile, nay hysterical, old friend Alcippe (Enrico Spada), and Dorante mistakenly believes her name is Lucrece and her friend’s is Clarice.
Another mutual friend Philiste (Marcus Kearns) acts as Alcippe’s second in quite possibly the fastest and funniest stage duel ever, and Dorante acquires a stock comic servant type in Cliton (Douglas Seldin) who acts as narrator and whipping boy throughout.
With the exception of Kearns, all of these are Shakespeare & Company stalwarts, used to playing verbally and physically together on stage. They look like they are having as much fun as the audience is!
Larry: Thank goodness you can keep all those convoluted relationships clear, I just get frustrated trying to keep them all straight sometimes. I guess we guys don’t observe relationships with the same care as the objects of our affection.
Gail: That is pretty much the message of this play – if so broad a farce can be said to have a message at all. Because he has confused their names, Dorante spends the entire play wooing and pursuing a woman he hasn’t even heard speak, let alone given a close look to, and yet he is as content to have won her as any other in the end.
Larry: Didn’t you love how Ives could pun in Franglais (“Champs-Élysées, my friend, lies that-a-way/ Unless the Louvre has mouvre-d since yesterday”)
Gail: Ives has said: “The Liar is a portrait of a brilliant performer and, language being the wire Dorante dances upon, the language had to match his agile mind at every turn. Prose would have turned this into a ‘Seinfeld’ episode and made it banal. Only rhyme would do.”
Ives came up with SO many wonderful and unexpected rhymes – some wonderfully good and some so bad that they were wonderful – that I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
Larry: I wasn’t sure what we were in for with The Liar, but the truth is, it’s a lot of fun, a bit of saucy French silliness wrapped in a delicate shell of literary artifice. Like that wonderful bumblebee costume on Geronte, Dorante’s dullard father that you loved so much. You’ve got to see it to believe it.
Gail: Govane Lohbauer has specialized in beautiful, witty, and wearable period costumes at Shakespeare & Company for decades. The men have to perform a lot of rough and tumble without ripping or unzipping, and the ladies have to stay safely inside those up-and-at-em bodices no matter what, and Lohbauer’s costumes always rise to the occasion.
I also admired the fine sound design by Michael Pfeiffer, which enhanced Dorante’s extravagant lies, making them at once both more realistic and more ludicrous.
Larry: The Liar will put a spring in the step while we wait for the seasons to change. The theatrical and literary elements come together perfectly. And that’s no lie.
Shakespeare & Company presents The Liar by David Ives, adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille, Patrick Brennan, set designer; Govane Lohbauer, costume designer; James W. Bilnoski, lighting designer/electrics; Michael Pfeiffer, sound designer; Jessie Earl, stage manager; directed by Kevin G. Coleman. Cast: Douglas Seldin – Cliton; David Joseph – Dorante; Emily Rose Enlinger – Lucrece; Alexandra Lincoln – Clarice; Dana Harrison – Isabelle/Sabine; Enrico Spada – Alcippe; Marcus Kearns – Philiste; Jake Berger – Geronte. About 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission. February 1 – March 24, 2013. Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA.