The Liar

20860480758_5279ec1243_hBy Philip Pearce

A 21ST CENTURY take on a 17th century French comedy breezed into the Studio Theater of The Western Stage last weekend and never stopped to take a breath. It’s called The Liar, and it was first produced by the classic French playwright Pierre Corneille in 1647. David Ives, who wrote the steamy Venus in Fur local audiences saw last year at Pacific Rep, has taken on Corneille’s rhymed period dialogue and farce situations and worked a miracle of hilarious updating.

Our eponymous hero Dorante is an ambitious French country boy who has come to the big city bent on acquiring some Parisian polish and wooing some toothsome Parisian ladies. His problem, if only he realized it, is that he’s incapable of telling the truth. And he starts his big city adventure by hiring a quick-witted valet named Cliton who is incapable of telling a lie.

The comedy happens as the increasingly dazzling falsehoods Dorante creates to avoid social and romantic pitfalls keep tripping him up and landing him in deeper and deeper hot water. He soon finds himself, for example, wooing the wrong girl because her best friend has a similar sounding name and he doesn’t listen carefully enough to distinguish Lucrece from Clarice. His mistake, garnished with a highly spiced description of supposed hanky panky with the supposed Clarice on a supposed yacht, leads to a duel with her enraged fiancé Alcippe. As directed by Dennis Beasley, their battle dredges up every piece of clichéd swordplay you ever saw in an old Errol Flynn epic and produces the funniest piece of stage combat I’ve ever seen. The cast of eight do full justice to the Ives script and the recycled Corneille slapstick. They speak the quick-witted verse, which sometimes strays into tidbits from Shakespeare, smoothly, clearly and trippingly on the tongue. With equal ease they attack the horseplay of the ridiculous old plot with the grace and dash of Olympic athletes. In keeping with the ins and outs of Ives’ dialog and some hybrid costuming, they also switch effortlessly from seventeenth century to present-day Paris. Dorante, struggling to back up a particularly blatant lie, Googles helpful background facts on his iPad. At another point, Lucrece, Clarice and their wisecracking maidservant Isabelle pause to take a giggly three-way selfie on somebody’s smart phone.

As Dorante, Aaron Kitchin manages to be hopelessly glib and pretentious and yet totally charming. He proudly shares the glories of his gift for creative lying with everyone in the theater and, until overtaken by a final change of heart, is just as self-assured in thinking up fresh lies that will quickly deal with the next unwelcome plot crisis.
Eddie Gilbert, playing the pathologically honest Cliton, clutches his head and rolls his eyes each time his employer launches yet another flamboyant inexactitude. He is at his funniest when he decides to take lessons in lying from his boss but chokes on every attempted falsehood.

He suffers his own romantic setbacks when he falls for an ardent servant girl named Isabelle without realizing she has a prudish identical twin named Sabine who packs a knockout punch. In a skillful piece of lightning-quick characterization, Brenna Sammon plays both twins, who never show up at the same time but often appear split seconds apart, and you don’t need identity tags or an identifying word of dialog to know at once which twin has just walked in.

The two high-spirited ladies who are sometimes blessed and sometimes victimized by the factually challenged Dorante are played with a lot of spirit and energy by the incisive and determined Gracie Navaille as Clarice and the more reflective Michelle Skinner as Dorante’s winsome true love Lucrece.

As Clarice’s enraged fiancé Alcippe, Nick Mandracchia storms in and out with lots of bluster and energy, sometimes roaring in flashing-eyed fury, sometimes bubbling over with a buddy-boy camaraderie to the embarrassment of Dorante, who has just vividly described killing him.

Alcippe has his own servant sidekick in the person of Philiste, played with athletic vigor and native wit by David Naar.

No classical farce is complete without its lean and slippered pantaloon. In this case that’s Dorante’s crotchety but good-hearted father Geronte, acted with typical style and polish by Jeffrey T. Heyer.

There’s eloquent line delivery, spirited action, and strong character contrast, even when the players are shifting props and furniture for the next scene. With one quarter-hour intermission, it took two and a half hours and the time whizzed by like a lunch break.

The laughs continue in the Western Stage Studio through October 4th.

Oliver!

Oliver

The Artful Dodger takes Oliver under his wing

By Philip Pearce

PACIFIC REPERTORY Theatre has just opened a new production of Lionel Bart’s delightful Oliver! It’s a show that turns 55 this year, but still attracts audiences and wins hearts, as an opening night crowd of family and fans proved last Saturday at the Golden Bough.

On stage, a big cast of experienced troupers and school-aged trainees were obviously having a whale of a time. There was broad comedy and heavy emotion for principal singers and actors in a script that adroitly plays up the charm and soft pedals the horror of Dickens’ melodramatic novel.

This version offers a small and appealing Oliver played by Sam Scattini, a gifted seventh-grader who alternates the role with her fellow Santa Catalina classmate Andrew Mansour. There’s a crafty but charming Fagin, a part that by now fits the talented Michael Jacobs like a purloined glove. There’s Stefanie Kitty Bloch belting out exuberance and heartbreak with power and commitment in the role of the doomed slum queen Nancy.

Director Stephen Moorer seems to have aimed at high energy and clearly defined characters and situations. Purists may possibly balk at the way he allows John G. Bridges and Jill Miller to turn “I Shall Scream” from wry social satire into a piece of predictable raunchy knockabout comedy. But the sequence is then followed by Bridges’ clear and powerful “Boy for Sale” as he peddles Oliver like a piece of merchandise through the shadowy streets of London.

There’s never any question about what characters are saying and singing. They’ve got mics that work perfectly. Saturday’s performance was the only time I can remember, in the handful of Oliver! productions I’ve seen before, that I could catch all of Lionel Bart’s dialogue and lyrics.

But that vocal clarity was sometimes gained at the cost of some valuable shades of meaning and contrast. Bart’s book and music artfully blend explosions of excitement in the streets and pubs of Victorian London with quieter moments of pathos or reflective happiness. But the mics on opening night all seemed to be tuned to one sound level – loud.

It worked wonderfully well when a workhouse-load of hungry boys opened the show singing the praises of “Food!”, in many ways the most successful number of the evening. And the amplification was just right when Arick Arzadon’s perky Artful Dodger assured Oliver he could consider himself at home in Fagin’s den of junior pickpockets. It suited the horseplay of “I’d Do Anything” and the rowdy beer-soaked shenanigans of “Oom-pah-pah!.”

But what about “Where Is Love?“ It’s the show’s main ballad. It sets the mood for Oliver’s wistful search for “someone who I can mean something to.” Sam Scattini sang the number accurately but her recorded accompaniment was so strident, piercing and relentless that she had no choice but to belt it out like some Ethel Merman showstopper.

“Who Will Buy?” also lost out. It’s Bart’s lovely fugue mixing the street cries of London flower and produce hucksters. It needs to start quietly with Megan Root‘s lone flower-seller asking “Who Will Buy My Sweet Red Roses?” then spread gradually to other solo or small group singers and finally explode in a burst of joy shared by everybody on stage. That didn’t happen. Not with the pulsing pressure of the loud sound track. The voices were clear, but what they sang sounded more like harsh rivalry than a blissful blend of shared enjoyment.

There was lots of energy and enthusiasm. Dare I hope that the single-level sound mix gets tweaked? It could turn this from a satisfactory Oliver! into a memorable one.