3:37 PM CDT, May 31, 2013
An extraterrestrial visitor to the theater of Chicagoland this year might well conclude that the good people of 17th-century France had both exceptional timing and more than a passing familiarity with Twitter.
Hot on the heels of "The School for Lies," a freewheeling Moliere adaptation by David Ives at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, comes "The Liar," a freewheeling adaptation by Ives of the Pierre Corneille comedy at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.
Although these are new versions of classical French comedies by quite different playwrights, both are very similar in that they are romplike, anachronism-fueled, hypercontemporary, laugh-centric, blow-off-the-cobwebs takes on the great dramatic literature of France. And both of these scripts, which fall somewhere between translation and adaptation, allow for lots of well-spoken, classically trained, very attractive young people (well, mostly young) to don extravagant wigs and/or costumes that emphasize a couple of their natural assets. From there, amusement ensues.
Probably one Ives farce a year is enough for anyone. See two in a season and some of the cleverness of the linguistic invention starts to feel just a tad too clever and self-contained for its own good. For those of us who get around, French comedy has been everywhere this season, including two more Molieres, albeit of very different stripes, on the production docket at Court Theatre.
But there's no question that some of the grumpy suburban spouses likely to be dragged to "The Liar" over the next few weeks ("It's Corneille, darling, what do you mean you're too tired?") will be pleasantly surprised at how fresh and fun the whole thing seem, once Ives' wit is added into that good old mix Francaise. I did not spot one dropping eyelid Thursday night in Glencoe, which puts them ahead of the game for any play first performed in 1644.
Of these two Ives adaptations, "The Liar" is by far the stronger of the two. The plot of the original play need not concern us here: It's a multi-lover, multi-multi-suitor affair involving potential pairs of twins, a clever valet (played by the likable LaShawn Banks) and the other tools of the French comedic trade, perhaps the second-oldest profession of the great Gallic nation. As silly as the whole thing feels, it really is an uncommonly droll take on what was always a very smart and well-crafted play — Corneille being a bit more thematically fluid than the stauncher Moliere — and full of genuinely funny puns, pronouncements and posturing. Better yet, "The Liar" has the benefit of the direction of William Brown, a romantic at heart whose palpable interest in emotion acts as a nice counterpoint to the natural Ives inclination to get trapped in circles of overachieving verbosity.
Brown, who has cast a variety of actors who often appear at Shakespeare festivals and the like, has worked in some breaks for honest emotion, most of which is skillfully yet truthfully conveyed by Nate Burger, who plays Dorante, the earnest protagonist of these proceedings. This is a carefully shaded production, the work of a director who has paid close attention to the varying ebbs and flows of an evening, as Brown invariably does when he tackles Shakespearean comedy. He understands that romantic comedies can't stint on the romance.
Certainly, this is a very ripe crew of aspiring lovers, ranging, on the female side, from Laura Rook, who bounces around and chatters enthusiastically as Clarice, to Kalen Harriman, who adds a nicely caustic, intermittently despairing note to Lucrece, to the very funny Anne E. Thompson, who plays the sexy servant Isabella/Sabine. Don't ask about the dual roles; you won't care. Thompson, who has a great time, could almost as easily have been playing Petra in "A Little Night Music," which Brown directed not so long ago on this very stage.
That might clue you in to the general lack of surprises here. But aside from Burger, you get to enjoy Samuel Ashdown's conniving yet hopelessly guileless Philliste (Ashdown, who is very funny, kept reminding me of Barry Manilow) and Michael Perez's Alcippe. Perez overplays a tad in the first part of the night, but you eventually start to appreciate his considerable comic chops. Jonathan Weir, in the role of Geronte, is the adult in the room.
By Act 2 I found myself chuckling away as Ives leads us down various multilevel lanes and into assorted meta-theatrical corners for fun and pleasure, all dressed up to the nines by the costume designer Rachel Anne Healy. There are elements of the appeal of "Downton Abbey" (Forgive me, Pierre) and, in one of the more Pythonesque sections of the evening, a genuinely hilarious sword fight with no rapiers but merely the sounds thereof, which more than do the job.
When: Through July 28
Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $35-$70 at 847-242-6000 and writerstheatre.org
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