Classical theatre has a reputation among the American public for being stuffy, cumbersome, and just plain boring. Anyone who has seen a well-performed Shakespeare knows what hogwash this is, but if any more proof were needed, Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of The Liar, adapted by David Ives and directed by Andrew Paul, provides a stunning example of just how relevant and entertaining the classics remain. A metatheatrical goose chase, it packs in seduction, dueling, and mistaken identities while uncovering a poignant truth under a mountain of lies.
The Liar, originally penned by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille, has been conscripted by Ives, a contemporary American playwright with a taste for the absurd. Although the play takes a few twists and turns, the basic premise is this: a young man, Dorante (Ethan Saks), who cannot tell the truth adopts a valet, Cliton (Patrick Halley), who cannot tell a lie. He quickly falls in love with an unknown woman, Clarice (Erika Strasburg), but fails to get her name and winds up getting the name of her close friend, Lucrece (Sarah Silk), instead. He proceeds to pursue the friend, thinking only his beauty could be named Lucrece, and hilarity ensues. Oh, and the whole play is written in verse, as the original was (Ives stretches some of the rhymes for comedic effect).
Dorante tries to sum up the lesson tidily in his ending monologue: “How liars are punishèd by their own lies!/Was not the moral of this exercise -/But rather how, amidst life’s contradictions,/Our lives can far out-fick the finest fictions.” But what Dorante goes on to say rings even more true: that although the entirety of the play has been a “lie,” this makes it no less full of truth, since that is the essence of theatre, finding truth in a fiction. The performance has built up to this conclusion, since it has been self-aware from the start, and the characters constantly remind us that we are watching a play. One of the more humorous instances comes about when Alcippe (Charlie Francis Murphy) exclaims in the middle of a fight with Clarice, “Is this a stage?! Are these just props?!” and flips a plate of colorful macaroons that stay attached to the plate, shrieking in horror.
Although he thinks himself quick and clever, and in spite of all the recurring references from Othello, Dorante is no scheming Iago. He may have the skill to fool earnest Cliton, but his plots fall apart and he must constantly bolster his wild fabrications with more. A self-centered troublemaker, Saks still plays Dorante with a charm that makes it impossible to dislike him. He may not be the dominant figure on stage at the start, but by the end of the show, he somehow has everything well in hand. Yet the cast as a whole work strongly as a unit. They interchange the fast-paced verse convincingly and without faltering. Saks and Murphy, though they have swords in scabbards, fight an intense and physical “air” duel with invisible blades, and even invisible lightsabers, brought to life with Angela Baughman’s sound design. Strasburg and Silk give us feisty and quick-witted love interests in Clarice and Lucrece, who are no dummies, even if they are susceptible to a charming liar.
Gianni Downs’s scenic design, Kim Brown’s costuming, and Johnmichael Bohach’s props all work together to convey just enough of a sense of seventeenth century Paris to ground the setting (intricate scrollwork, shoulder capes and rapiers, elegant furniture), and yet tweak these styles to make the production contemporary and playful. Downs’s design of large blue-washed panels at skewed angles convey the sense of a maze or a puzzle appropriate for the confusing plot. Brown’s costuming is tailored to each character. Dorante is outfitted in an orange-peach color (perhaps as a wink and nudge to the Donald) with lace cuffs, setting him apart and lending him the air of a dandy. Cliton’s beggarly lifestyle is evidenced in his worn out jeans and a dirtied shirt. Clarice and Lucrece at the start of the play are made the yin and yang of each other, the outgoing Clarice in a white gown with a black fan, and the introverted Lucrece in a darker gown with a white fan, a clever choice since the women are almost opposites in personality. The various touches of anachronism onstage, like the jeans or the metallic pink of Clarice’s furniture, suit the anachronisms flying about in verse.
Kinetic Theatre’s production is a timely reminder of how twisted our lives can become with misinformation, but also how important theatre is for speaking the truth, even if through the means of a lie. Ives’s source may be a couple hundred years old, but the cliché is right, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Liar runs at the Henry Heymann Theatre through July 30. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Photos courtesy of Rocky Raco.