A CurtainUp Review
The School for Lies
Additional Notes by Elyse Sommer
What use for satire, now our lives are placid
And all our ills are solved by techno-fix?
Let‘s pity, then, poor sixteen sixty-six.
After attending and reviewing the Pearl Theater's production of Moliere's The Misanthrope earlier in the season, the thought never occurred to me that another version of this verse masterpiece would pop up so soon afterward and prove that there is not only room for an adaptation other than the acclaimed and renowned one by Richard Wilbur but also one that presumes to win our admiration and instant affection as does The School for Lies by David Ives.
Mamie Gummer & Hamish Linklater in School for Lies
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
Having delighted audiences Off Broadway in the past couple of seasons with Venus in Fur and New Jerusalem, Ives is apparently on a roll with The School for Lies, indisputably inspired by The Misanthrope. This gifted playwright who first came to prominence with All in the Timing, an evening of One Act plays successfully produced Off Broadway in 1993, has deployed his versifying skills in the grandest and also most disarmingly comical manner.
If Ives has taken generous liberties with the original, including minor digressions of familiar characters and plot, the end results (with no apologies to Shakespeare for reasons I won't disclose) is an always enjoyable, and on more than one occasion, an uproarious entertainment. It is certainly calculated and consigned to reflect the attitudes and references of a contemporary audience.
Rather than dwell on the whether the purists will or will not be shocked, it is my contention that Moliere is not only being duly honored by the crispness and cleverness of Ives' couplets but also by the spot-on finely tuned company of farceurs who appear entirely respectful to the genre to which they are showing an alliance as well as their allegiance. Consider the tart and tasty verse that sets the tone of the play, as spoken by Philante/Actor Hoon Lee:"Monsieur Moliere, unfortunately dead, /Sends fond regrets from his eternal bed. /For it was he with an immortal play /Who mixed the batter for tonight‘s soufflé."
The plot continues to revolve around the harshly critical Frank (Hamish Linklater), whose indignant displays of self-righteousness prompt both predictable and unpredictable responses from those he encounters and admonishes in high society ("Speak from your soul. Say nothing that‘s not true/And Number One among the things that bug me--?/ Don‘t ever, ever, ever, ever hug me"). Although Frank is named Alceste in Moliere's play, Alceste not destined to be completely dismissed by Ives in a marvelously contrived plot device. Audiences have begun to see the qualities that have already defined Linklater as a splendid Shakespearean (The Merchant of Venice, The Winter's Tale, Twelfth Night), but he is also very much at home finessing his way through Ives' acidic verse.
I can't recall an actor who has channeled such two distinctly comical characters in a play with as much infectious brio and sly humor as does Steven Boyer as Frank's valet Dubois and as Celimene's servant Basque. Basque's task to serve canapes to the assembled becomes a running gag throughout the play, one that develops with an ever increasing sense of hilarious desperation.
To make matters worse, he has his name spelled wrong in the credits box.
As if Mamie Gummer's entrance as Celimene in a white satin gown weren't stunning enough, she's also sure to take your breath away as she invests a drolly comical insouciance into her verses. In delicious contrast, there is Alison Fraser as the coarsely grained and wonderfully grating Arsinoé whose bitchy disputations with her friend Celimene are beautifully cloaked in bitchy wit.
You may assume that it is not hard for any actor worth his salt to get laughs as the laughably inept poseur/poet Oronte as he reads his trite poem to Frank for approval and appraisal, but Rich Holms earns them as much with his pregnant pauses as he does with the words that come stumbling out of his mouth. Jenn Gambatese literally bubbles over with vivacity as the romantically foiled, but not for too long fooled Elainte. There is a sheer and unbridled pleasure watching fashion conscious Philante (Hoon Lee) try to sustain his dignity in the light of Frank's humiliations and the lack of interest initially shown to him by his beloved Elainte.
Under the sublime direction of Walter Bobbie, Ives's adaptation, resides within the classic time period that set designer John Lee Beatty evokes with minimalist authority. This, of course, allows costume designer William Ivey Long to dress the actors, particularly the women, in the richly envisioned elegance that defined Parisian high society in the 17th century. It is easy to see why Bobbie is Ives' director of choice (he helmed both Venus in Furs and New Jerusalem). Over the course of the play, Bobbie never misses an opportunity for a buffoonish antic to collide with the intellectual audacity that never wanes.
A joyous finale that literally explodes into a celebratory dance. There isn't a play at this time on Broadway or off that is worthier of the unbridled laughter and the unabashed shouts of approval that greeted The School for Lies at the performance I attended.
|Additional Notes by Elyse Sommer|
Fashions and customs may change but the masks of insincerity that rule our social behavior have remarkable durability. That's why The Misanthrope remains one of Moliere's most popular plays, and a challange to prose and verse translators.
The delightful School for Lies now at Classic Stage Company is not the first time that this company has given new life to Moliere's classic farce. In 1999 Martin Crimp re-invented this comedy of manners, complete with sassy new couplets. By moving it into twenty-first century London this Misanthrope became a play about hypocrisy in the film and entertainment industry and proved to be a big buzz creating stage debut for film star Uma Thurman ( review). A couple of years ago, Crimp's slick update again served to introduce a film star' to the stage, this time it was Keira Knightly at London's Comedy Theatre (review).
Flemish director Ivo van Hove, who is known to not just modernize classic plays but deconstruct them and his 2007 production for New York Theatre Workshop was no exception. He too used a rhymed translation and moved the action into the present, but also made extensive use of modern technology, the result being part living theater, part cinema. (review). All this noirish modernity tended to upstage both Moliere and the actors.
No doubt if Moliere was miraculously transported back amongst the living, seeing the modern decor and costumes of the Crimp and van Hove versions would have him scratching his head. However, he'd probably feel in sync with the elegantly costumed actors currently at CSC.
Contrary to Pilante's introductory " So screw Molière, we‘ll do our own damn version!/ In English, thank you, for your full immersion" he would, even without understanding English, somehow feel at home with the actors speaking David Ives' English and very much of our time couplets. Like Simon and me (and all who see her), he'd be smitten with Mamie Gummer's Celimene whose "impromptu portraits" now include a hilarious rap. And he'd need no translator to recognize his characters, just watching the rest of this terrific cast — from the easy to spot wart-nosed Oronte to the bloviating Trump-like (but without the weird orange comb-over) Acaste (No doubt Moliere's 17th Century world had its own Trumps).
In the Classic Stage's program insert, artistic director Brian Kulik makes an interesting points about the Elizabethan concept of "lively turning." The concept quite simply is 'to take' a piece of received wisdom (a proverb, phrase, historical incident) and "turn it" on the anvil of your own inventiveness, thus granting new life to to what has otherwise seemed old and familiar." Kulik supports his comments by citing Shakepeare as literature's most famous " turner." The comparison is apt in the sense that Shakespeare did indeed base his plays on existing works so he and Ives use the same methods. However, I'm sure Kulik would agree that while Ives couplets are indeed great fun, they're not going to be part of our dictionaries and phrase books for centuries to come.
To paraphrase Frank's disgusted sum-up of the then as now overly litigious, consumerist society around him ("Where are the great men of the Renaissance?/ We spend our days discussing restaurants!//What shows we‘ve seen! It being our highest attainment/To waste a lifetime viewing entertainment")
I guarantee that you won't waste the two hours you'll spent seeing this "lively turning."
The School for Lies|
David Ives inspired by Moliere'sThe Misanthrope
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Cast: MamieGummer (Celimene), Hamish Linklater (Frank), Steven Boyer (Dubois/Basque), Frank Harts (Clitander), Rick Holmes (Oronte), Hoon Lee (Philante). and Matthew Maher (Acaste)
Scenic design by John Lee Beatty
Costume design by William Ivey Long
Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski
Hair design by Paul Huntley
Stage Manager Terri K. Kohler
Sound by Acme Sound Partners
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission
CSC 136 E. 13th Street.br
From 4/13/11; opening 5/01/11; closing 5/22/11
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 2 PM.
Tickets are $70 for weekday performances and $75 for weekends.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on April 27th Press performance; add-on comments by Elyse Sommer based on April 28th press performance
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