Review of Shakespeare & Company’s The Liar

Christmas is long past, but Shakespeare & Company has given us an early Valentine, The Liar, a sparkling, hilarious adaptation by David Ives of Pierre Corneille’s only comedy. It is directed by Dennis Coleman, whose thirty years of acting, teaching, theatre training, and directing have been honored nationally as well as by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Coleman’s experience and innate good taste allow him to guide his actors to know exactly where to be zany and where to back off, making this originally French farce dance across the stage of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre with generous joy.

The plot turns on the almost congenital lying of a young man (Dorante played by David Joseph) newly arrived in Paris, carrying a large street map and determined to conquer the city by sheer force of imagination. Mistaken identity and young love play their usual ebullient parts in this intricate tale, but while there are some funny tricks involving opening and closing curtains in Patrick Brennan’s flexible, evocative set, the dialogue—a canny blend of crisply understandable iambic pentameter and deliciously surprising up-to-date rhymes gives some of the greatest pleasure. Words are king from the rhyming of lubricity with duplicity to the invention of something called “powdered health” which is described as tasting like a “minty dentifrice.” All of this is supposedly taking place in the seventeenth century.

Dorante’s tall tales rival any in the theater; their subject matter is racy, urbane, naïve and utterly unbelievable. Yet they manage to take in everyone on stage at least somewhat and for a time—from Cliton, played by Douglas Seldin who immediately rips off his “Servant for Hire” sign when Dorante promises to pay him for his services—to the beautiful, tongue-tied Lucrece (Emily Rose Ehlinger), to the lovely Clarice (Alexandra Lincoln), whom Dorante thinks is Lucrece. And then there is Dorante’s father Geronte (played by Jake Berger), who wants to marry him to the niece of an old friend, and Dorante’s long-lost school friend, Alcippe (played by Enrico Spada), who has a very twenty-first century commitment problem and has been secretly engaged to Clarice for two years. And did I mention that Dorante thinks she’s Lucrece?

Add to all of this, twin serving women (Ives’s own outrageous creation) named Isabelle and Sabine, both played by Dana Harrison) who enchant two of the young men on stage and all of the audience with their very different romantic inclinations. Mr. Joseph and Mr. Spada duel (as it turns out without once using the swords amusingly held and withheld by Marcus Kearns as Philiste) across the stage, and in typical Shakespeare & Company fashion, into two sections of the audience. Geronte (temporarily Dorante’s “dupe de jour”) turns his tapping hobble into high-stepping boogie when he hears that he may become a grandfather.

But when the liar is caught in his own snares, expect no pat Aesop-like morale. The happy ending is oh, so French, oh so wonderfully funny and satisfying. This froth is augmented by Govane Lohbauer’s usual marvelous costumes, especially for the hopelessly un-chic liar. The sound cues, whether music or noise enliven all. The lighting designed by Michael Pfeiffer illumines a Parisian street scene, an afternoon tea, and the Tuileries—not to make them real, but to turn them to magic. But then who wants reality at this time of year in a world in the state it’s in? The object is to delight. And delight The Liar will in Lenox through March 24th. It’s an evanescent cure for mid-winter in the northeast.

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