BWW Reviews: THE SCHOOL FOR LIES Tickles Ribs at San Diego North Coast Rep Theatre
Theme: Molière's Misanthrope. Variations: The School for Lies.
In his comic tour-de-force throwback to seventeenth century mores, playwright David Ives melds the rhyming couplets of three centuries past with the rhythms of contemporary speech, merges Restoration era physicality with contemporary lack of inhibition, and peppers aristocratic language with twenty-first century expletives. One almost imagines this brilliantly wrought, delightfully played comedy of manners accompanied by a lively Allegro of Jean-Baptiste Lully performed on a harpsichord in a Louis XIV salon, overlaid with a rock beat from Radiohead. The brilliantly matched North Coast Rep ensemble pulled together all of these elements with dexterity.
1666 was the year Stradivari opened his violin-making shop in Cremona, and the year after the Great Plague hit London. But in Paris, chic salons were the hotbed of social and cultural activity, and the June 4th premiere of Moliére's satirical romantic romp Le Misanthrope at the Palais-Royal was the hot ticket of the day.
Ives's School for Lies premiered Off-Broadway in 2011, the same year as his Tony award nominated Venus in Fur. The celebrated playwright specializes in satirical commentary on society. His affinity for French plays shows in his award winning The Liar, adapted from Corneille, and The Heir Apparent, adapted from Regnard. His parody Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread cleverly imitates the New Age composer's minimalist style.
It would have been a genuine challenge for Ives to improve upon Molière; instead, he chooses to pay homage to the legendary French playwright. In the prologue, Ives acknowledges the original play as the "batter for tonight's soufflé" and describes his own creation as a "translaptation" in which he has added scenes and adapted and translated the rhyming text into contemporary idiomatic language. His deftness with words in this comedic parallel universe transforms Molière's 1666 legerdemain of language into a dazzling vehicle for the six men and three women in the cast, while keeping it totally relatable for a contemporary audience. Secrets and deceits, planted rumors, nonstop verbal wit, a carefully constructed life turned upside-down, all conspire to delight the audience, putting a contemporary spin on the mores of the past.
The widowed young Parisian heroine Celimene has no use for her numerous suitors, who bore her, but has no qualms about taking advantage of their magnanimousness. Avoiding true love since the loss of her beloved husband, she finds her match in Frank, a British malcontent with a tongue as caustic as her own. "Society is a school for lies," he tells her, and challenges her to live a life true to her inner needs and desires. Ives creates a conduit for his own satirical views in the callously honest Frank (his name is a play on words for the candidness of the character), whose criticisms of officious, scheming upper class bigwigs ultimately get him into trouble. Woody Allen-type Love and Death intrigues ensue.
Under the skillful direction of Andrew Paul, in his North Coast Rep debut, the supremely talented cast was up to the challenge of the playwright's carefully crafted, rapid repartee, their quick-tongued banter at times resembling the "patter" style found in the operas of Donizetti and operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. They worked together seamlessly, without missing a beat. Paul demonstrated his comic flair, a likely result of his vast experience as artistic director of acclaimed Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre (PICT) and directing works of celebrated playwrights from Beckett, Pinter, Chekhov, Mamet and Stoppard to Shakespeare, to great effect in the uninhibited physicality of the ensemble and the distinct contrasts between delightfully exaggerated gestures, shameless mugging, and deadpan humor.
As the iron-willed misanthrope Frank (aka Alceste in the original Molière), Richard Baird grabbed the audience's attention the moment he stepped on stage. Forceful, arrogant, he superbly portrayed a character whose swaggering efforts to appear sure of himself belie his inner self-doubt, handling the difficult tempi of his complex, pyrotechnical dialogue with astonishing proficiency. Familiar to NCR aficionados in a number of roles, Baird has also appeared at the Old Globe, Chicago Shakespeare, and Diversionary Theatre, and has directed numerous productions as founding artistic director of the award winning Poor Players.