A good, gut-wrenching tragedy is part of the heart and soul of theater, of course, providing proof to those who need it that the theater is a “serious” art form. But there’s good reason the famous visual symbol of the stage includes two masks, one face in anguish and one in peals of laughter: as the great actor Edmund Kean is alleged to have said just before he slipped into eternity, “Dying’s easy. Comedy’s hard.”
Comedy is the head to tragedy’s heart. It can, and does, stir emotions, but it’s an analytical, exterior art form, moving through the brain first and the heart only afterwards. Farce in particular looks at human urges and activities from an analytical perspective, exposing patterns of behavior and often hiding a merciless bleakness behind a mirage of wit. The best farce balances restlessly between hopefulness and cynicism, and is seen these days as often on the TV screen (witness the late, great Frasier) as onstage. Screwball comedy, so old now that we think of it in black-and-white movie tones, was the classically upbeat populist American adaptation of the form.
Heading into summer, theatergoers might well be thirsting for something a little light and lively, but still with a punch. Portlanders going through Alan Ayckbourn or Michael Frayn withdrawal might want to hie themselves over to Artists Repertory Theatre, where the fiercely funny playwright David Ives is keeping the farcical flame alive with his “translaptation” of The Liar, French master Pierre Corneille’s 1644 comedy about an inveterate fibber whose elaborate fabrications get him into hot water, and barely out again before he’s boiled alive.
We’ve seen Ives’s contemporary wit and freewheeling way with iambic pentameter recently in Theatre Vertigo’s ribald, rowdy, and altogether amusing production of his School for Lies, an adaptation of Molière’s 1666 comedy The Misanthrope. Now comes Corneille, a little bit older and a little lesser-known, out to make the case after all these centuries that he’s still Molière than thou.
The Liar is about, well, a liar, a fellow so resolutely devoted to untruth that it’s almost like a religion to him: even when his aim is honorable (or some unreasonable facsimile thereof) he can only approach it through a series of ever more complex and roundabout inventions. At Artists Rep this young master of mendacity, Dorante, is played by babyfaced Chris Murray (adorned in straggly facial hair and a cascade of foppish curls), whose angelic exterior belies a devilish delight in stirring things up.
Murray plays Dorante smoothly and easily, as if he hasn’t a care in the world, yet also with that sort of imitation of spontaneity in which, sometimes, you can hear his brain click: How’ll I spin myself out of this factual fantasy I’ve just gushed out? The temptation is strong to see Dorante in political terms, as a cynical manipulator of public opinion, willing to go to any means to justify a selfish end. And lord knows the brittle switchbacks and misdirections of Corneille’s comedy suggest the Machiavellian elaborations of the political craft. But, at least as Murray plays him, I think of Dorante as a different sort of liar – as the prototypical storyteller, a fellow who just can’t help himself, who gets an essentially innocent thrill out of making things up, who needs to invent new realities, because in inventing them, he also invents himself. This Dorante, the one I choose to invent to satisfy my own need for a suitable explanation, is Dorante the improvisational novelist. The Liar veers suddenly and surprisingly onto a whole new track late in the game, after you think you have the misdirection figured out, and I can’t help thinking that Dorante’s just as shocked and charmed by the development as anyone in the audience.
A batting lineup, just so you can tell who’s on first: Dorante, just back in Paris, runs into Cliton (John San Nicolas), a different sort of rascal whose equal-but-opposite quirk is that he’s compelled to always tell the truth. Seeing possibilities, Dorante immediately hires him as his dogsbody. On the street they see the young ladies Clarice (Amy Newman), a bit of a chatterbox, and Lucrece (Chantal DeGroat), who scarcely lets out a peep. Dorante makes a play for Clarice, who sort of does/sort of doesn’t rebuff him; she’s secretly affianced to Alcippe (Gilberto Martin del Campo), who is an old buddy of Dorante, and is also the jealous type. Meanwhile, identical maids Isabelle and Sabine (Val Landrum, both) sow alternately flirtatious and Puritanical confusion in a Comedy of Errors manner; dashing Philiste (Vin Shambry), a well-born friend of Dorante and Alcippe, tries to keep the peace; and Geronte (Allen Nause), Dorante’s unfortunate innocent of a father, tries to get his son married off to anyone who’ll have him. Got that? There’ll be a quiz after class.
As he did with The School for Lies, Ives takes some jawdropping liberties with his adaptation of The Liar, tarting up the iambic pentameter with a thoroughly modern wink, and tossing in more than a few allusions to Shakespearean hijinks. Among other things, this is very much a play about the theater – San Nicolas, as Cliton, is a backstage guide, a comic version of the Stage Manager in Our Town or the emcee in Cabaret – and the audience is expected to keep up with the nimble wits onstage. Ives kicks Corneille out of the theater-history classroom and onto the contemporary street.
“My version of the play is what I call a translaptation, i.e., a translation with a heavy dose of adaptation,” Ives wrote in program notes for the play’s original production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C., and reprinted in Artists Rep’s program. “For what I have realized in translating plays is that, in an odd way, the language of a play is of secondary concern. I contend, one must think as a playwright, not a translator. One must ask: what is the play underneath the words, what is going on beneath speeches rather than on the surface, who are these characters and what drives them, and finally, what is this play actually about? … In other words, you have to write the play Corneille would have written today, in English.”
And that’s what Ives has done. He gets splendid visual support from costumer Bobby Brewer Wallin’s foppish-frilly finery and Susan Gratch’s intimately open scenic design, and from director Dámaso Rodriguez’ swift and clipped pacing, which keeps things rolling at high speed without flying off the tracks. It’s a fine cast overall, with crisply caricatured movement (including some Musketeer-style sword fights choreographed by Jonathan Cole) and with San Nicolas’s wry acerbity neatly balancing Murray’s smooth overindulgence to create a crack comedy teaming at the show’s center.
Even in a contemporary adaptation, this sort of stylized classical comedy calls for a precise verbal agility, and the veteran Nause shows the way in this regard, enunciating sharply from the front of his mouth, sending out his speeches like little volleys of well-aimed arrows. It’s a delightful performance by an old pro who knows the tricks of the trade, and how to use them to full effect. The rest of the cast is linguistically variable but solid; DeGroat and Landrum in particular stand out for their vocal facility. This sly and charming production’s sole weak point is its uneven ability to wrap its collective tongue around the words.
Don’t let that stop you. This is a witty play, in a stylishly good-natured production that’s playful and intimate and a great deal of fun. Take my word for it. I wouldn’t lie to you.
The Liar continues through June 21 at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information are here.