"The Liar" is David Ives reconstruction of a play written, performed and published between 1631 and 1634. Originally a five-act farce, it has been reshaped into a two-act, farcical, high action comedy that greatly alters the original French piece into a contemporary American comedy of errors and misunderstandings.
"La Veuve" or "The Widow" is about a man named Philiste in love with a widow named Clarice and his friend Célidan who is loved by Clarice’s sister Doris. Playwright David Ives has basically taken the two couples and changed characters, added characters, altered the situation greatly, added elements from at least two other early Corneille plays and created something uniquely his own with "The Liar." Luckily, the resulting "adaptation" is a very funny play adding a major kudo to the Corneille catalogue, a play that never really existed until now, 329 years after his death.
Six of Corneille’s first eight plays were comedies. They altered the French theatrical comedy from true farce to a new form through which the author offered "a painting of the conversation of the gentry." The form he used was rhymed dialogue in couplets. Ives, after some self-exploration, chose to do the same, for the most part, in his new work.
Utilizing a very personal writing style in which seventeenth century dialogue uses contemporary phrases and references, he has crafted a work that often makes its audience burst out in jovial and appreciative laughter. In this winter of our discontent, political, social, economic and weather, a rousing good comedy is just the ticket, and Shakespeare and Company has those tickets available right now.
Many members of the company are Shakes and Co regulars, often seen to better advantage in the winter season than in their larger summer season. Three of them bring their fine skills to bear in four roles in this play. David Joseph plays the titular hero of the play, Dorante, while Enrico Spada takes on that of his rival in love Alcippe. Dana Harrison plays both of the maids, the personal attendant maids of the two leading ladies.
The heroines are undertaken by Alexandra Lincoln as Clarice (remember Clarice...the widow?) and Emily Rose Ehlinger as her friend Lucrece. Doris is nowhere in sight and neither is Célidan. Philiste, played by Marcus Kearns, has become a third wheel who fancies the maid Sabine, whose twin sister Isabelle is in love with money and attracted to Cliton, played by Douglas Seldin, the servant for hire from a very different genre of plays by Goldoni, an Italian playwright from a century later. Rounding out the company is Jake Berger playing Dorante’s father Geronte.
What to tell you about this play and its people. Cliton sets the tone of the piece, involving the audience directly in a school of theater drawn from the puppet theaters of Europe, revealing the secret of the rhymed couplet and introducing the concept of a free-agent servant in need of employment. He is a man who can only tell the truth, a nice contrast to the character of the man who hires him, a man who can fabricate lies like no other and who seems to see no need for sincerity in his life.
Seldin has an open face and heart and plays the character for everything he is worth. The warmth, charm, humanity and humility of his Cliton sets a wonderful example of all that the other characters cannot present. Seldin is a champion on the stage of the Bernstein Theater in Lenox. He’s a joy to watch.
Jake Berger as the confused yet forthright father plays the muddled older man with clarity and style. His rages are as funny as they are meaningful. Marcus Kearns is wasted as Philiste, a semi-libertine whose simple honesty in his love for a termagant is charming but adds little to the play except the occasional distraction from the main stories. Kearns is handsome and his talents are underemployed in this role.
Alcippe is given the full Enrico Spada treatment, suddenly altering his temperament and with it his body language and facial expression. Spada plays the quixotic character to perfection, his mood altering instantly upon learning one new salient fact. His sense of honor comes to the fore in the duel he fights with his rival in the Tuilleries and this duel, in fact, is one of the comic highlights of the production partly as a result of Spada’s insistent portrayal of the mighty and gallant swordsman.
Alexandra Lincoln whose femininity is over-ridden by a quirky cross-gendered appearance takes on his love, Clarice. She handles the romance, and the ultimate lack of same, with a wonderful Martha Raye-like physicality. She plays with her men in a non-flirtatious manner and yet achieves the result of flirtation. Lincoln makes this all work for the character and helps to play Ives’ dialogue, with its odd combination of rhymed, rhythmic, period dialogue and modern words and references, to a perfect if peculiar reality.
Emily Rose Ehlinger brings the gusto, physicality and energy of a modern-day comic to her young ingénue role as Lucrece. She comes close to hillbilly status with her energetic defense mechanisms and somehow makes it seem right for a young French woman of the demi-nobility.
Dana Harrison and David Joseph share the top honors in this show as they have before on this stage. Harrison’s two sisters are so different from one another that even the strong physical resemblance is hard to believe. They are twins, but so different in voice, appearance, style and attitude that she makes us long to see them together, side-by-side.
That is perhaps the only thing she does not achieve in this production and it makes one long for the movie version. She is adorable as Isabelle and forbidding as Sabine, light as a feather and sexy about it too as the former and challenging and brutal as the latter. This is a tour-de-force for this actress and a perfect welcome back to this stage.
Dorante could not have a better interpreter than David Joseph. His non-stop energy is exhausting and his wacky way with a gesture, his sanguine search for a phrase, his pretty postures and poses as he challenges, embraces, alters and reconfigures his character’s explanations keeps him in the center of this production’s broad stage playing area. He brings us a character for which truth is only a finale and lies are simply an expression of intent. He makes the logic of this man’s life seem practical and ordinary and realistic when in truth it is just the opposite.
In the second act he announces to the audience that there will be no more poetry and he launches into a confessional love scene that tugs at the heart once the audience stops laughing. This role is a triumph and should bring Joseph into more prominence on the main stage as well in the coming seasons. This is a career to watch.
Director Kevin G. Coleman has played with his actors as a conductor and choreographer plays with his musical ensemble. They are choreographed, placed in perfect pictures and twirled about on the stage like acrobats when necessary. What he has brought to his original, new Corneille work is a wonderful sense of the period when it should have been written and still he manages to keep the show modern, charming, and funny.
Patrick Brennan’s set is wonderful and flexible and the set changes were a delightful prance for the company, leaving the audience breathless. Govane Loubauer’s costumes provide that perfect Shakes & Co sense of time and place and James N. Bilnoski’s lighting worked splendidly for the show as did Michael Pfeiffer’s humorous sound design.
This show is meant to shake the winter glooms. Opening the day after Blizzard Nemo it did just that for its grateful and laughter-weakened audience. I recommend that anyone who needs a laugh take this show into your heart. It will definitely warm you up and send you out into the cold winter weather with a renewed spirit.
"The Liar" runs through March 24 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre stage at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA. For information and tickets call, 413-637-3353 or website at www.shakespeare.org.