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The Liar

A Triumph of Make Believe

Adapted by David Ives from Pierre Corneille
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010, B–115&116 (front left stalls)
Directed by Michael Kahn

When a man calls a woman a bivalve in a most endearing way and it gets the night’s biggest laugh, either you are watching the worst of scripts that has finally rushed irretrievably into absurdity, or you’ve slipped into a sublimely surreal world where gallants engage in faux duels and a cruller ties up all the plot’s loose ends.

Let me qualify the above set-up by pointing out that the label “night’s biggest laugh” is to assign it a grade of 10 compared to all the nines and eights that have come before. Ives’ rhyming pentameter script (i.e., “You may be a bivalve, but you’re my valve”) of this classic French play was not only cleverly hilarious but warm-hearted, too, and it still managed to deliver shaded life lessons (Dorante’s speech on the merits and mechanics of good lying is more insightful truth than slapstick humor). How surreal? Ives’ original draft ended with the characters being invited by the queen to join her on her royal barge, the culmination of an earlier joke in the play. As that seemed just too ridiculous, Ives rewrote a new ending by introducing a long-lost brother abandoned in a bakery and still carrying the crullers he was meant to fetch. If that sounds even more ridiculous than the original ending, all I can say is that it not only somehow seemed more fitting, it instigated the second-biggest laugh of the night (a 9.75).

The cast had to give these ridiculous lines serious readings, though they also enjoyed their time on stage since, after all, they often addressed the audience in modern terms. Dorante, the title character, is truly a despicable cad on the page, but Christian Conn managed to bring him off with all the charm and wit that entices the affections of Clarice (Erin Partin) and Lucrece (Miriam Silverman, the hitherto-mentioned bivalve). Adam Green’s Cliton, as pathologically honest as Dorante is dishonest, signs on as the servant and became our incredulous representative on the stage. STC fixture David Sabin played the gullible father, Gernote, and Aubrey Deeker was Philiste, the only seemingly sane one among the ensemble—after all, it was he who finally broke up the swordless duel.

Yes, a swordless duel. Dorante lies so effectively he manages to engage the hot-headed Alcippe (Tony Roach) in a serious duel using imaginary swords, one of the most inspired stage moments we’ve ever seen (sustained 9.5 laughter). Big kudos not only to Conn for leading it but also to Roach for being believably gulled into the fray. Roach also managed to turn the words pomegranate and snap into high humor (consistently registering nines on the laugh scale just speaking either word).

Then there was Colleen Delany who played both of the women’s servants, Isabelle and Sabine. In Corneille’s original, they were unrelated to each other. Ives turned them into identical twins of totally different demeanors and dress, which Delany played believably, physically exiting on one side of the stage as Isabelle and emerging on the opposite side as Sabine barely a line later.

Fantasy is fine, and absurd can be admirable. But for great, great fun, I prefer to escape reality with such surreality.

Eric Minton
April 16, 2010

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