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.