Adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille
Directed by William Brown
Produced by Writers’ Theatre
Who doesn’t prefer a sweet lie to bitter truths?
Without a doubt, the Writers’ Theatre’s production of David Ives’s ‘translaptation’ The Liar—freely adapted from the 1643 French comedy Le Menteur by Pierre Corneille—is the funniest ticket in town. And those eager to kick off their summer right could do significantly worse than with this dazzling fireworks display of language, ingenuity and comedic bravado. William Brown (who directed last season’s A Little Night Music at Writers’) directs an exceptionally adept young cast as they bring the linguistic intricacies of Ives’s verse comedy to life, tickling the ear even as they titillate the mind.
The narrative intricacies of Corneille’s exuberant sex romp remain intact in Ives’s version which tells the tale of wily rapscallion Dorante (Nate Burger) who only hours after having arrived in Paris falls under the amorous influence of the young lady, Clarice (Laura Rook). Thus hoping to skirt the arranged marriage being set up by his father Geronte (Jonathan Weir), Dorante embarks on a quest to lie, deceive, and falsify his way into the heart of the woman he loves. Aided by his manservant Cliton (LaShwan Banks)—who himself cannot tell a lie—this fast-paced farce hinges on the calamities of mistaken identities, twins and clever subterfuge, with Dorante himself never realizing that all the while his true heart’s affections actually lie with Clarice’s friend, Lucrece (Kalen Harriman).
In truth, however, the minutiae of plot play a deliberately secondary role here, and trying to sort out the details of ‘who knows what when’ and ‘who is under what illusion’ feels somehow beside the point. The less expenditure one makes trying to follow the play’s manifold contrivances, the better. The play’s real appeal, after all, has less to do with the way reality unfolds in truth than with the way reality is spun out of illusion. Thus the play is peppered with winking self-references to its own theatricality and formal conventions, with Dorante gradually assuming the role of ‘author’ every bit as much as a mere character. “All the world’s a lie,” Dorante professes, and one soon gets the impression that his elaborate fabrications are less a moral vice per se than an effort to “reweave the tapestry” of reality itself, reshaping it into a comic vision of the world not as it is, but as it should be. More than being merely an artful deceiver, Dorante is an artist of the self.
And Brown’s production is thankfully smart enough not to get bogged down in clunky exposition, rather preferring to allow the play’s naturally frenetic energies to practically burn across the stage. At times deliciously lowbrow (a favorite groaner features the rhyming of ‘diarrhea’ with ‘idea’), whimsically lyrical (“Let me submit my mind unto the moon”), and physically audacious (including the funniest sword fight sans swords you will ever see), Brown’s production stands first and foremost as a big-hearted love letter to the craft of theatrical illusion. Sure, the first act sometimes lags when having to come down to anything so grounded as an actual narrative. And yes, it’s extreme self-awareness lends itself occasionally to a heavy-handed didacticism. And perhaps we are less convinced by its efforts to be suddenly ‘sincere’ and emotionally ‘authentic.’ But its chief accomplishment is not in plumbing the depths of the human experience, but rather in cultivating the glittering allure of the surface.
Nate Burger demonstrates impeccable comedic instincts and proceeds with all the raw spontaneous energy of someone seemingly making it up as he goes along, effortlessly mirroring Dorante’s own ability to think on his feet. And LaShawn Banks is so funny you forget he’s actually the most serious character in the play. And of special note is Anne E. Thompson who gives a dual performance as the twin maid servants Isabelle and Sabine, distinguished only by an upraised collar and choker. Isabelle is a flirtatious optimistic in contrast to her austere sister Sabine, but Thompson’s quick-change transitions are seamless and perfectly counterpointed one to the other.
So I say submit your mind unto the moon, and let this wonderfully light-hearted summer dalliance seduce you, too.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Thursday, May 30th, 2013.
The Liar runs until July 28th, 2013. Writers’ Theatre is located at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. For tickets call (847) 242-6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-liar/5459/.