Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar” has been making audiences laugh since the mid 17th century. The profile of this French farce may not be what it once was, but playwright David Ives and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey are now successfully putting a broader face on its timeless comedy.
Ives premiered his playful new adaptation and translation (which he has referred to as a “translaptation”) in 2010 with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. Already on her radar, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte took additional interest in that production because it featured members of her Equity company in the cast.
Monte eagerly brought this fresh, cheeky and wickedly funny piece back home, where she put it in the capable hands of director Paul Mullins, who has guided many a side-splitting farce and satire to her stage.
Saturday’s opening-night crowd, weak from laughter, gave the final result a spirited standing ovation. No doubt Ives will see his translaptation welcomed by the regional theater circuit, but few if any companies have a chance of topping this production.
On a surprisingly sparse, raked stage, eight actors share obvious delight with the audience as they toy with Ives’ mischievous verse—iambic pentameter, or so we are told in a clever introduction by Cliton (Kevin Isola), who warns us of their intention to rhyme, along with the usual admonishments about cell phones and noisy cellophane.
Ives considered the tradition of rhyming couplets to be essential, so he kept it intact. He did, however, whip it up into a unique blend of classical and contemporary language, including some mild cussing that sounds shocking within the context.
Equally entertaining are the linguistic gymnastics he forces upon some of the actors, who earn laughs with their readings of some preposterous pronunciations required to complete a few of the rhymes. Rather than accept that some people are averse to verse, Ives wisely embraces their distaste by poking fun at the discipline, making it more fun for everyone.
“The Liar,” of course, is preposterous from curtain to curtain call. Set in Corneille’s France, there’s a handsome eligible bachelor named Dorante (Brian Cade) who has arrived in France to hunt for a wife. He quickly enlists Cliton as a servant and chats up a maiden, Clarice (Jane Pfitsch), who fancies him right back. Her friend, Lucrece (Maya Kazan, granddaughter of noted film director Elia Kazan), isn’t as impressed.
She has good reason, as we quickly learn that Dorante is a pathological liar, churning out whoppers faster than Burger King. He’s beyond pathological, really, practicing falsehood as though it were sport, and doing it with the passion of a golf addict.
“The unimagined life is not worth living,” Dorante declares, helping us along the way to see how lying is so much a part of all our lives.
Cade brings an effectively earnest approach to his character-starved character, who is amusingly confused when confronted with the moral implications of his behavior. It’s as though he never considered them before.
Typical classic comedy devices, including mistaken identity, jealous lovers and meddling parents, drive the twisting plot toward a valuable life lesson that his character—in a rare moment of honesty—admits this play does not deliver.
Isola, though, is driving the fun bus as Cliton, whose witty, eye-rolling observations are often shared with the audience. As he proved here last year in his tour de force performance in “The Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” Isola has a big bag of comedy tricks, ranging from funny faces, voices and noises to his uncanny ability to raise dry humor to a new level of neck-snapping hilarity.
The ladies have fun as well, although neither Corneille nor Ives give them enough to do. Ives, though, eliminated some characters and combined roles for others, presenting a well-executed comic opportunity for Katie Fabel as twin servants, the lusty Isabelle and tensely wound Sabine, whose repressed passions erupt in one memorable scene.
Running concurrently with , the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is certainly doing its fair share to keep everyone in a good mood. Here’s the slightly better choice for grownup and classic theater lovers who crave something almost completely new.
“The Liar” runs through July 29 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. at , Madison. Tickets are $32 to $70. For more information, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.