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Comedy and Emotion: A Review of THE LIAR at Santa Cruz Shakespeare

July 28, 2015 § Leave a Comment

“Emotion and comedy are enemies,” wrote the great French philosopher Henri Bergson, in a famous essay on humor. Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s beautiful, but strangely heartless, production of The Liar (adapted by David Ives from French neo-classic author Pierre Corneille, who in turn had adapted it from Spanish Golden Age writer Juan Ruiz de Alarcón y Mendoza) is a study in how difficult finding balance can be. There are some terrifically funny scenes in this very pleasant comedy, but the overall effect was oddly cynical about both love and honesty.

Neoclassic Comedy in “Transladaptation”

Since its premiere in 2010 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., which commissioned this loose translation/adaptation, Ives’ version has become a staple of the Shakespeare Festival circuit. (In the Bay Area, Marin Shakespeare performed it in 2012, in a well-reviewed production I did not see. The following year Livermore Shakespeare Festival performed a version that, as I said in my review, I found charming.) Ives plays with language amusingly in a witty, anachronistic iambic pentameter version that tells the story of a young rake-on-the-make, Dorante, who is perpetually incapable of telling the truth and his hired servant, Cliton, who is equally unable to tell a lie.

Ives is, of course, a well-known playwright of absurdist-flavored comedies of his own devising, especially Venus in Fur – and his screwball rhymes, silly puns, and sly insertion of contemporary observational comedy explain exactly why the Shakespeare Theatre chose him to create this new version of The Liar.

It is Better to Look Good than to Feel Good (Or Is It?)

In Santa Cruz, Nina Ball’s beautiful set, essentially consisting of life-sized black-on-white architectural renderings, and David Mickelson’s elaborate period costumes created a gorgeous spectacle. (I saw an afternoon performance in the outdoor redwood glen SCS uses as its current performance site where Kurt Landisman’s lighting design was not readily discernible, but I have yet to see a design of his that I did not admire.)

Toby Onwumere (Cliton), Brian Smolin (Dorante), and Mary Cavett (Clarice) in David Mickelson’s costumes. All photos by Shmuel Thaler.

Much of the action is farcically mechanical, and when that is the case (like the comings and goings of “a set” of identical twin serving maids with opposite temperaments, played to great effect by Melinda Parrett), Art Manke’s direction is meticulous. Fight choreographer Kit Wilder created a terrific mock duel involving imaginary rapiers that extended that precision from the ridiculous to the hilariously sublime.

More than a Farce

The play is more than a farce, however. Our lying hero, Dorante, is using his talent for prevarication to pursue a young woman who has caught his eye, and in the manner of romantic comedy that leads to an eventual love match. In this case, however, too much comedy becomes the enemy of emotion. It is hard to root for Dorante, or at least Brian Smolin’s chipper but strangely charmless rendition of him because, while his flippant self-absorption got the verbal antics right, it created little empathy. The young woman – or as soon becomes apparent, women – who so entrance him were played by Sierra Jolene and Mary Cavett with wit and verbal dexterity, but as so calculating that it is hard to identify with them, either.

As I observed about Santa Cruz’ other offering in the current repertoire, exploring the callowness of youth does not an evening make. In their outstanding production of Much Ado About Nothing, an engagingly emotional supporting cast provides depth that the youthful leads cannot. There is much less opportunity for such humanity in Ives’ play, but even Kurt Meeker, as Dorante’s long suffering and endlessly forgiving father, stays in key with the rest of the production by playing the part with an emotional distance at odds with the sentiment implicit in the script. The cumulative effect is chilly. When the clever resolution is finally reached, although amusing on a surface level, it is hard to care, and not even clear that it is a good thing.

Sierra Jolene (Lucrece), Mary Cavett (Clarice), and Brian Smolin (Dorante) on Nina Ball’s set

This peculiar outcome is partially the result of the artificiality of the elevated playing style, partly because of the mask-like quality of the exaggerated make-up, but mostly because the emotional depths of the narrative are left unplumbed. The essential ingredients are all there, but as in a soufflé, it requires delicate handling to makes it rise. The good news is that there is plenty of time left in this run for this gorgeous production to find its emotional balance.

The Liar by David Ives

Santa Cruz Shakespeare

Playing through August 29, 2015

Seen on July 25

Review: THE LIAR at the Livermore Shakespeare Festival

June 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

David Ives is best known for his comedy Venus in Fur, coming to ACT in San Francisco next spring, and his collection of short plays collectively called, All in the Timing. He is also a prodigious adapter, having won awards and attention for his updates of the Mark Twain piece, Is He Dead?, Feydeau’s classic farce A Flea In Her Ear, and Molière’s The Misanthrope. Livermore Shakespeare Festival is now serving up his 2010 “transladaptation” of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar (Le Menteur) in a production that is a perfect introduction to this undeservedly obscure French comedy.

Ives’ version of the play is freely adapted from Corneille, but faithfulness to the original is surely not why we attend neoclassic comedy anyway. He constantly finds verbal twists and topical updates, not to mention cheeky meta-theatrical wisecracks, that make for delightful listening.

LSF2013_The-Liar_198_loresPhoto by Kenneth Alexander. Luisa Frasconi and Rafael Jordan in The Liar. Costumes by Barbara Murray. Scenic Design by Randall Enlow.

The admittedly thin plot concerns a young rake, new to town, who is chronically unable to resist overstating his résumé or embellishing a tale. While keeping him constantly dancing on the edge of a cliff, it proves an effective technique for gaining the attention of eligible young women. (In a wonderful authorial addition by Ives, his servant is given exactly the opposite problem, unable to tell a lie even when he is just one bit of flattery away from the night of his dreams.) A reunion that turns into a run-in with an old friend powers the first act, while the second concerns trying to outwit his good-hearted, but gullible, father’s attempts to make an advantageous match for him. That everything ends happily is due to the plotting of Corneille+Ives and not the characters themselves, but that is how farce works.

Livermore sits about an hour east of San Francisco in a beautiful wine-producing district, where one of its oldest vineyards, Concannon, hosts the festival on its grounds. It is a destination theatre, but without question worthy of the trip to catch this production.

This almost unknown piece is an inspired choice by Artistic Director (also the production director) Lisa A. Tromovitch, for the non-Shakespearean selection on its season. Emerging companies may not yet have the budgets or infrastructure to challenge older, more established theatres but they can score with more adventurous programming. The Shakespeare Theatre, in Washington D.C., commissioned Ives to adapt the piece as part of their rediscovery series. It was the breakout hit of the year. Surprisingly, few other companies have had the courage to stray from the warhorses, so Tromovitch saw and grabbed an opportunity.

Livermore Shakespeare is a sleek, young company of the “passion and two boards” variety. The performance space is a raised deck erected in front of an historic Victorian-style home in the middle of the vineyard. The gingerbread mansion is visually entertaining on its own, but you have to suspend your disbelief and think of it like the neutral façade of Shakespeare’s Globe instead of scenery. It provides a practical second story balcony and entrances from two sides, so as long as you think of it as an open stage it is an excellent Elizabethan playing space.

Restoration era costumes give the night some visual impact, but it is the company’s reveling in Ives’ clever rhymed iambic pentameter, and sly contemporary additions, and not the spectacle that makes the production so thoroughly enjoyable.

At its center is Rafael Jordan as the title character, whose is equally adept at charming the objects of his affection and the audience. (He doesn’t just break the fourth wall, he scarcely acknowledges that it exists.) Jordan is an Equity professional pursuing his MFA with ACT’s famed conservatory. His stellar energy and verbal dexterity make him the evening’s standout. (The highpoint of the night may well have been his narrating his own duel as if he were Howard Cosell, dazzling us and his stunned opponent simultaneously.) To be fair, however, despite the disparate range of experience among the actors – from AEA members to college interns – there is not a weak link in the cast.

Paul Barrios as the truthful servant proved a master of the droll aside, but had his hands full keeping pace with Rebecca Pingree’s bravura turn as twin servants with diametrically opposed temperaments. Without realizing there are two, he is in love with the pert flirt, but keeps running up against the dour dominatrix.

Katheryn Zdan and Luisa Frasconi proved unconventional ingénues, conspiring with Ives to subvert the insipid, sexist stereotypes of Molière’s period. In a very funny evening, few things could top the constantly surprising ways they defied convention – seemingly rewriting the roles while playing them.

The cast was rounded out by Sean Higgins as a wildly jealous – and somewhat dim – suitor to Zdan’s character, Patrick Moore giving an unexpectedly moving reading of the duped, but perpetually forgiving, father, and Jeremy La Clair as the requisite raisonneur, but with a surprising twist that provided the evening’s biggest deadpan laugh.

Tromovitch’s direction was witty, stylish and restrained. She urged her cast toward the right degree of physicality to remind us of French comedy’s indebtedness to Comedia Dell’Arte without ever undermining the verbal effervescence of the evening. It is a hard line to tread, but she got it exactly right.

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