The Liar

It’s all fun and games – then in sets the curse:
A bad post-show habit of speaking in verse.

Michael Kahn’s robust staging of The Liar whips past at high-speed, like spun sugar gathered from a cotton candy machine. At night’s end, what passes for plot and character has dissolved, leaving only those bouncy rhyming couplets smacking sweet on your lips.

(l-r) Adam Green as Cliton, Christian Conn as Dorante and David Sabin as Geronte (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Theatergoers looking to chew meaty topics will throw up their hands in the first ten minutes of Act One. But dessert, when prepped so precisely, can hit the spot too.

Most of the credit goes to the newly adapted script by David Ives, commissioned through Shakespeare Theatre’s own ReDiscovery Series. For Ives, one of America’s better dramatic humorists, translating the fun of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 French comedy was an act of respectful reinvention. “In other words,” he writes, “you have to write the play Corneille would have written today, in English.” Ives struck the balance by crafting a “translaptation,” a phrase he coined to acknowledge the space that good retellings have to occupy between loyalty to the old text and relevance for a new audience.

The result is a scrubbed, vivacious script salted with hints of cheeky self-awareness. Characters, for the most part, mold their thoughts into verse – the ingénue Clarice (Erin Partin) retrieves her hand from a suitor’s grasp with: “However sweet your manual sensation / this hand’s not meant, monsieur, for your palpation” – but it takes Ives’s keen handle on the silly to round out the show. Cliton (Adam Green), the aw-shucks valet, is our meta-comedian, shambling knowingly into plot devices and blaming his offenses on “that tragic flaw, again!” Lines from Hamlet, bizarrely, get co-opted to make the rhyme scheme work. And more than once, in heartfelt moments of candor, lovers grow irritated with the limitations of verse and give it the old college try in prose. It’s this willingness to swirl in some postmodern comic touches that imbues The Liar’s well-trodden forms with a spry step.

The forms themselves won’t be of much surprise. Lights up on Paris (in set designer Alexander Dodge’s imagining, a squeaky-clean playland with a pop-out book sensibility, including square trees and sliding interior walls with 2-D molding). Enter the mysterious Dorante (Christian Conn), the out-of-towner who, like many young men, comes to Paris with girls on the mind. Moments after hiring Cliton (who wears a Rent Me sign around his neck) Dorante turns his handsome mug to the golden-haired Clarice, her sullen companion Lucrece (Miriam Silverman), and their twin maids Isabelle and Sabine (both played by a scene-stealing Colleen Delany).

Dorante’s a shameless exploiter of the unexamined spaces between people. The young cad, motivated by a cynical breed of opportunism (“The world’s a scrim, Cliton, a fiction / a richly tapestried, inch-thick depiction,” he grins) is quickly off on a hot streak, making fritters of fact with frightening zeal. Two maids, two ladies with similar first names, and utter confusion about Dorante – Is he married? Is he a father? Did he really just get to town yesterday? – spur all the expected twists and turns, through which the ensemble wheels and reels with such speed and smirk that it’s practically all resolved by the time we’ve sorted out the threads.

Even with Ives’ script in hand, The Liar could have fallen flat on its rambunctious face. In relying so heavily on verse within the patter of protracted parlor scenes, the show risked becoming a lumpen, self-congratulatory two hours of A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. Luckily, the ensemble’s finely-tuned comic timing and a hyper-diligent sense of pace keeps us on top of the action.

Dorante, especially, whisks up lies with the discipline of a soufflé chef. Left untended, the confection starts to collapse, and as he begins charging around the space, grasping to hold together his claims to family, friends, and lovers, lying starts to seem less a mental trick than a test of cardiovascular health. When the truth falls out from under him, it’s not just the period costume making him sweat. It’s the life-and-death stakes of good comedy.

The Liar

Written by David Ives
Directed by Michael Kahn
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles

The Liar runs through May 23, 2010.

Reviews:

DCTS review

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