Playwright David Ives’s mastery of rhymed verse builds on Molière’s 17th-century comedy of manners. Together, they will leave your sides aching.
The School for Lies is the fourth French collaboration between playwright David Ives and director Michael Kahn. Ives calls his mix of translating and adapting French works “translaptation,” despite significant evidence that he usually has his way with words. What it means is that Ives made significant changes to the plot from Molière’s Le Misanthrope before rewriting the play in English.
The play begins very similarly to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Gregory Wooddell stars as Frank, a Parisian noble who has only just returned to the city with an undeniable disgust for the upper class’s two-faced manners. Frank starts off as halfway between Benedick and Don John, sassy yet overcome with, well, misanthropy.
Things take a turn towards Frank’s inner Benedick when he meets Celimene (Victoria Frings), whose sharp wit has kept would-be suitors at bay, in a very Beatrice way. Then his friend, Philinte (Cody Nickell), decides to pull a prank that Don Pedro and Claudio would be proud of: Tricking Frank and Celimene into each believing the other loves them. Or, at least, can get them out of serious legal trouble if seduced, in Celimene’s case.
The School for Lies breaks hard from the Shakespearean plot when Eliante, Celimene’s younger cousin and the object of Philinte’s affections, takes a hard look at how things went for Claudio’s Hero and instead chases after Frank. Dorea Schmidt shows a great range as Eliante, at times seeming the purest character in the cast until she threatens to kill Frank if he doesn’t have sex with her on the floor of her cousin’s drawing room. Somehow, Schmidt and Kahn fit both extremes believably within Eliante’s constant earnestness.
From there, the play piles on layer after layer of misunderstood intentions, a couple of mistaken identities, and plenty of slander. The steady flow of Ives’s verse is hilarious and dazzling. It is so easy to get lost trying to guess the next rhyme and then get blindsided by yet another sharp and filthy joke.
Celimene’s three suitors are the butts of most of it. Liam Craig’s Acaste especially, but with a surprising self-awareness. Acaste accurately calls himself an idiot, but argues pretty convincingly how smart it is to be an idiot.
The School for Lies
closes July 2, 2017
Details and tickets
Ives’s writing isn’t perfect. This production is a sort of adaption of the 2011 debut of The School for Lies, with tweaked text to respond the current political climate in Washington, DC. In a play with buffoons like Acaste, it hardly seems necessary to make the comparison to modern politicians any clearer. And yet the audience ate up 2017 buzzwords uncomfortably spliced into the script, too often a cheap laugh was a speedbump on the way to more insightful thoughts.
Funny enough, when Acaste says he’s good at being an audience member because even an idiot can cheer along with the rest of the crowd, the audience kept quiet. Making the play anti-Trump gives them the opportunity to pretend that Celimene’s slimy suitors couldn’t possible also be them. Well, I laughed.
The farcical 17th century Paris setting is an absolute playground for costume designer Murell Horton. Philante and rest of the pompous nobility define the word “festooned.” Horton clearly enjoyed dressing Tom Story’s Oronte, an egotistical bard whose jerkin has his own face on it, looking like a cover of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.
Ives so thoroughly mocks love that the happy ending he adds to Molière’s story doesn’t ring true. Neither couple has the chemistry to make up for the torment they put each other through. But comedies of manners are more about the characters than the plot, and that torment is so funny that it hardly matters how the play ends. Getting there was the fun part.
The School for Lies by David Ives. Adapted from Le Misanthrope by Molière. Directed by Michael Kahn. Performed by Gregory Wooddell, Victoria Frings, Dorea Schmidt, Cody Nickell, Veanne Cox, Cameron Folmar, Tom Story, Liam Craig, and Michael Glenn. Scenic design by Alexander Dodge. Costume design by Murell Horton. Lighting design by Mark McCullough. Sound design by Christopher Baine. Stage managed by Joseph Smelser. Produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.