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.

Jessica John as the vulnerable Celimene was, in a word, scintillating. She showed immense versatility in her portrayal of the character's constant shift between a constellation of characteristics: from playful and flirtatious to cunning and cynical; from lofty Venusian grace and beauty to unexpected, all-too human earthiness; all executed with physical adeptness, such as being able to stand atop a small round four-legged cushion in outrageous platformed pumps. Seen locally at NCR and several of the city's leading theatres, she proved herself more than worthy of being named one of the top fifty People to Watch by San Diego Magazine.

A youthful veteran of productions at NCR, Moonlight Stage, New Village Arts and Intrepid Shakespeare, Brenda Dodge charmed the audience with her open and honest rendering of the conflicted Eliante. Her transformational arc from naïve and ingenuous to lusty and licentious was the most extreme of the ensemble. She handled it convincingly, and with superb skill, astonishing the audience with her sudden bursts of physical adroitness.

Joel Ripka played the dualistic role of the hapless Philinte with great versatility. As perhaps the most honest character in the play (and certainly the most polite), Ripka evoked great sympathy with his gentility and self-effacing humor, while rocking the role of his alter ego in gown and crown.

As the conniving, hypocritical, egregiously self-aggrandizing Arsinoé, Dana Hooley gave the audience some of the most riotous belly laughs of the evening. In a role that demands a difficult mix of extreme facial gestures and physical exertion that would challenge any comic actress, Hooley rose to the task with hilarious nimbleness. Familiar to audiences from San Diego to New York, and recipient of numerous acting awards, she showed her experience to great advantage, especially when it came to an unanticipated makeup malfunction, which she worked into her shtick to uproarious effect.

Jason Heil as the bumbling, pompous marquis Acaste, Phil Johnson as Oronte, the insufferably devious poet, and David McBean as the gossip-addicted Clitander, formed the riotous trio of Celimene's suitors - the comedic theater equivalent of the operatic Ping, Pang, and Pong. Together and individually they elicited uninterrupted guffaws and titters from the audience with their appealingly obnoxious antics and pratfalls.

In the dual role of Dubois and Basque, the pokerfaced manservants who suddenly dissolve into profanities, Jonathan McMurtry held his own amongst the throng of rambunctious characters, a reflection of his astonishing list of accomplishments: fifty years and two hundred productions with the Old Globe, eleven productions at NCR, and numerous TV and film appearances. A recipient of many kudos, including the prestigious 2008 Craig Noel Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre Award, Jonathan has performed in every one of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays.

Now in his twenty-second season after one hundred-fifty shows as NCR's resident designer, tech director Marty Burnett showed exquisite taste in his elegant unit set, which was beautifully offset by Matt Novotny's lighting. To his credit, Novotny was able to weather a sudden lighting glitch that was not his doing, and somehow incorporate it into the flow of the comedy.

Alina Bokovikova's costumes deserve special mention. Cleverly built in keeping with the period, the colorful designs also served to satirize seventeenth century upper class apparel by pairing contemporary foot attire with period clothing. Combat boots and exaggerated pointy shoes contrasted with opulent, richly colored silks and brocades. The character-revealing switch between Celimene and Eliane's costumes from Act 1 to Act 2 was particularly striking.

What's not to love in David Ives's over the top comedy of manners? Relevant to our times or not, the batter for this soufflé is baked into the lightest French pastry imaginable: a non-caloric but indulgent treat that will bring a delicious smile to your lips. A brilliant twist at the end provides the warm chocolate sauce for this profiterole.

It's unclear whether you will not be able to stop laughing, or you will alarm your friends and family with your incessant rhyming speech. What is certain is that once you've seen School of Lies you'll want to see it again.

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From This Author Erica Miner

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