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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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