Confused identities and a flair for mendacity spark comic romp in ‘The Liar’ at Writers’
Review: “The Liar” by David Ives, adapted from Pierre Corneille, at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe through July 28 ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Young, lusty, autobiographically creative Dorante embraces a simple code: The unimagined life is not worth living. From the tangled roots of that premise springs Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy “The Liar” – revamped and translated for today’s English-speaking audiences by David Ives, and now brought to the stage with a farcical flourish at Writers’ Theatre.
While reason may be in short supply, as dauntless Dorante pursues his heart’s delight, rhyme is ever present in an oft-tormented torrent of iambic pentameter. This is one funny, smart evening’s amusement. At its center is a performance by Nate Burger that exudes all the charm, bravado and nimbleness of tongue required to keep us in Dorante’s corner, no matter how outlandish the tales he invents to squirm out of one lie by forging another.
Actually, you have to sympathize with the lad’s predicament: He meets this raven-haired beauty called Clarice (Laura Rook), who’s in the company of her strawberry blonde friend Lucrece (Kalen Harriman). It’s love at first glimpse for Dorante, but he doesn’t catch his darling’s name. He hears both girls’ names and is left to guess which is which. He gets it wrong; he’s dying for Clarice but thinking her Lucrece.
Then Dorante’s father (Jonathan Weir) announces that he’s struck a marriage bargain for the boy: He is to be wed to a rare beauty by the name of Clarice. Dorante, who has been away for some time, will have none of it and tells his father he’s already married to a girl in another town. But none of this really matters because Clarice is betrothed to Dorante’s good friend Alcippe. Be assured this is but the tip of the iceberg. Below the water line, things are really a mess.
Dorante, who prides himself on the finesse of his fable-spinning, engages a man servant who is constitutionally incapable of telling a lie – a weakness that has cost him more than one post in the past. This good man is Cliton, embodied with a full measure of exasperation, astonishment and incredulity by LaShawn Banks. Cliton is Dorante’s conscience, the still, small, inconvenient voice of reason that keeps trying to steer the lad onto a higher path. If the two characters are oil and water, Burger and Banks merge into a delectable vinaigrette, an emulsion of edged wit and sure-fire comedy.
The muddled object(s) of Dorante’s affection also offer a zesty pair of opposites. Rook’s Clarice is a picture of seasoned pride, accustomed to such attentions and disdainful of this rude youth at her door. As Harriman’s Lucrece emerges from the shadows of neglect, we begin to grasp a complicated, sensitive and interesting character. Running interference for these two lovelies are twin serving maids, the sweet-tempered Isabelle and the fearsome dominatrix Sabine, both drawn in broad, laughter-inducing caricature by Anne E. Thompson.
In the performance I saw, understudy Michael Mercier leaped in as Clarice’s fiancé Alcippe. A natural comedian, Mercier raised the spirit of farce to a level befitting commedia dell’arte. The high point of the show is a hilarious duel between Dorante and Alcippe, who has reason to believe his dear friend has seduced his beloved Clarice. It is a deadly fight – with air swords, every clash of unseen steel resounding through the house: Thrust, clank! Parry, clank! And the poor lady in the front row. An air rapier right through the midsection. It was unintended, of course. In pitched battle, collateral damage happens. (Alcippe later apologized to the astonished victim.)
Completing this fine ensemble, Jonathan Weir makes an engaging turn as Dorante’s patiently indulgent father, and Samuel Ashdown adds a good dollop of comically sharp fun as Philiste, the all-purpose go-to guy who parcels out key information.
Director William Brown keeps the story moving at a merry pace, on an effectively simple set by Keith Pitts that’s basically stacked circular platforms with a sliding rear screen. So much the better to show off Rachel Anne Healy’s sumptuous costumes, especially the grand gowns worn by Clarice and Lucrece.
As for the outcome, I can report only that boy gets girl. Indeed, there are multiple pairings, though nothing comes out quite the way you’d expect. And yet it all rhymes.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
Tags: David Ives, Jonathan Weir, Kalen Harriman, Keith Pitts, LaShawn Banks, Laura Rook, Michael Mercier, Nate Burger, Pierre Corneille, Rachel Anne Healy, Samuel Ashdown, William Brown, Writers' Theatre The Liar