'Tis the season for sucking up at company holiday parties — or, as Frank, the central character in David Ives' "The School for Lies" would put it, this is prime time, baby, for "two-faced pestilential etiquette." Perchance you indulged in a little of that time-honored, Chicago-style "pretzeled pomp of pimping politesse" at some holiday soiree just last night. Maybe you told your boss how much you admired her. Hope you could live with yourself this morning.
If all that was a struggle, you're a prime target for this radically updated version of Moliere's comedy "The Misanthrope," now mincing up the boards at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in a highly extravagant and energetic production from director Barbara Gaines that includes such subtleties as the actor Kevin Gudahl, avec lisp, costumed like a sound guy at a Cheech and Chong tribute; a costume that has actress Deborah Hay just millimeters away from a wardrobe malfunction it would be difficult to immediately correct; and a wart on the face of the actor Greg Vinkler of a size fully comparable to the single scoops at the overpriced Haagen-Dazs store right there on Navy Pier. Subtle, this evening is not. But amusing in an end-of-the-year, rompish, stuff-it-all, talky-walky way? Most certainly.
As fans of the Comedie-Francaise will know, "The Misanthrope" is the story of a man who causes havoc by refusing to lie and flatter and who insists on speaking the truth to those who are not used to hearing it spoken directly to their faces. Moliere called his hero Alceste, rather than, er, Frank. That's one clue that Ives is taking some liberties with the original text. So is the introductory speech. "Moliere has packed his tent," it goes, "and the producers gave him his 2 percent." So, in essence, Ives is saying, stuff the dead dude and let's take the basics of his plot and pack in so many anachronisms as to virtually smoke the 1600s out of its well-coiffed hole.
Ives does write in rhyming couplets, which is apropos for Moliere. The distinguished Moliere translator Richard Wilbur, who did much the same to far more nuanced ends, was not known for his rap sections, his profanities, his wild anachronisms or his plethora of references to bodily orifices. At times here, you might well feel like you're watching Moliere meets "The Book of Mormon" with costumes for cover. You wouldn't be entirely wrong, although Ives stays on the side of good taste. Mostly.
Gaines' production, staged under a dazzlingly elaborate light sculpture created by set designer Daniel Ostling and nearly consumed by a hilarious costume design from Susan E. Mickey that lands somewhere between "Tartuffe" and "Mamma Mia," has the great benefit of the real-life Canadian couple of Hay and (Ben) Carlson, Stratford darlings both, starring in Chicago like latter-day versions of the Lunts. Both are excellent, as is Heidi Kettenring an indomitable but relentlessly honest Chicago actress who knows that great farce must always have the patina of panic.
Carlson, one of North America's best and most restless classical performers, is that rare verbose actor who can both attach himself selflessly to a Chicago-style ensemble (which many visiting leads cannot) and yet also stand outside the whole, which makes him ideal for Alceste, er, Frank. There certainly have been Carlson performances of greater substance (This ain't "Hamlet"), but as they well know North of the Border, Carlson is a formidable comedian, irascible yet weirdly vulnerable in his bluster. He really is a border-crosser in so many ways, He has total ease with language of any stripe and yet always conveys a contemporary insouciance at the same time. Few can match him. Hay, meanwhile, is a charmer with a very un-Canadian sting in her tail — and in her voice box, which emits a great boom whenever she needs to call some miscreant soul to order or land a laugh. Without this pair, this show would have lost urgency and become tiresome. But Carlson and Hay keep things exuberantly on track.
The biggest challenge with any outre farce is to maintain narrative drive and keep the audience from disengaging with the plot as it increases in silliness. There are some dead spots here when you're not exactly on the edge of your seat. And there are times when jokes are so overplayed, the shtick so shticky and the characters so overblown, as to wring all three of them out within an inch of their natural lives that were tentative to begin with. Some jokes are so overstuffed, their punch lines are actually stepped upon, making one crave a lighter toucher. But if you see "The School for Lies" as something akin to holiday pantomime — drag, audience participation, et al. — then you'll likely find yourself going with Gaines' unstoppable flow.
Some big names in the long-standing Gaines Repertory Company, including Vinkler, Paul Slade Smith (whose character gets called "clitoris," which sounds vaguely French), and Sean Fortunato, who shows up frantically in a frock, are in the piece. Samuel Taylor, playing two servants for the price of one, brings much manic energy. And the very game Judith-Marie Bergan is unafraid to show us fulsome sensual satisfaction, live and in a solo moment, as this flippant, playful script demands.
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