As I trotted from the concession stand to Alder Stage at the Artist Repertory Theatre with hands full of shortbread, coffee, and a magazine-program for The Liar, I found my seat without crumbling the delicate cookie or spilling the hot coffee on the intimate stage, set only a few feet from the front row. I had the perfect seat: three rows back and center. Pretty soon I realized that this was the same stage as the theatre’s season opener last fall, Intimate Apparel, but I could only recognize the room from the blue surround stadium seating.
This new stage and set design is really minimal by contrast, merely a painted false surface on the floor, a quadrant design perhaps iconic to 17th Century France. A map of Paris hangs in the background and we are to imagine all scenes taking place there. A single potted shrub centers the floor. With each change of a scene, merely some furnishings are swapped out. The shrub begins the tale of two men meeting on an outlying road.
The Liar is a “translaptation” and the work of David Ives, an award-winning playwright and international go-to for adaptations and translations of various non-English works. It is written in verse and iambic pentameter, a rigid style that depends on clever fudging to retain human feeling. The pentameter especially rouses the audience when rhymes are carried over several lines by a few characters. Unlike common dialogue, you must pay close attention to patterns with an open mind to receive verse that undoes the predictable, reveals subtext, and leads the way through every plot twist.
Watching this play, it struck me that original Shakespeare was no doubt like this, utilizing verse only to break it for the sake of humor (or drama), sending raucous audiences into fits of roaring laughter. In fact, this work was originally commissioned by Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, as an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 play, Le Menteur.
It starts with Cliton, a simpleton and laborer looking for work, performed by John San Nicolas, an actor I’ve noticed for his many supporting roles throughout the season. I thought that he would be the star, until it was revealed that he cannot lie, so the liar of the play, and the star, turned out to be Dorante, played by Chris Murray. Together, they make a solid comedic duo.
Cliton is hired specifically because he cannot lie. He becomes kind of a tag along, a squire, a protege at times, but his job description is pretty unclear because it is rather uncertain what motivates Dorante at all, or what he has been up to. He admits to Cliton that he just arrived to Paris, but upon meeting women and old friends in the streets, he carries on about battles won in Germany, adventures, and all manner of lies. What is his agenda? It is difficult to say. But Dorante is persuasive and Cliton needs the money provided by his noble employer (who is not exactly forthcoming with the money).
Dorante starts trouble when he conspires to win the heart of Clarice, who is secretly engaged to Alcippe, an old friend of Dorante. A feud ensues between the men, although neither of them are exactly clear why. After all, both are keeping a secret. The whole story unravels quickly with twists and confusions as Dorante lies to everyone. Lucrece, the best friend of Clarice receives mixed signals from this rascally protagonist. Philiste, the best friend of Alcippe, pegs Dorante for who he is, and that eventually catches up with him — although Alcippe has his own desires. Geronte is the unfortunate father of Dorante and is played like a fool toward Dorante’s plans. Cliton is the anchor, the sole confidant, helping to clarify fact from fiction throughout the lies, quipping at so many opportune moments, sort of pulling thoughts right out of the audience. All the confusion settles in the end. Love and Dorante’s better intentions win the day.
It is a fast-paced comedy but the story is not impossible to keep up with. Although the language is modern, the pentameter can throw you off. I was particularly thrown off because I tend to fixate on the rhyming and I sought out deviation from the norm. I loved hearing the verse bend the rules to produce different effects. I also spaced out at times, dreaming of historical details.
Although humor wins over history in The Liar, I really enjoyed thinking about 1650 Paris, a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment, post-renaissance civilization. I imagined the true fashions of the day, assuming these low-budget felt theater costumes were mere hints at the grand, complicated outfits of the day. Men carrying swords and staffs, women carrying umbrellas. I also thought about daily life in a city with high society, arts and culture, but also one that is totally surrounded by farms. Class disparity looked different, people were true servants, some to the Earth and God, and some to the merchant class, the nobles and their swords. And yet the pace of life must not have been the absurdity that it is now, with all the technology and profit-motivation of late-capitalist 21st century America. It is as if we are all servants of the economy, no matter our position in the gentry, and perhaps the more money we have the more enslaved we are to it.
It was a pleasure to see J.S. Nicolas perform a co-starring role, because he brought the sauce; he was funny. Like a true theatre actor, he throws himself forcefully into every role. He is precise in his delivery, but there is something about his real presence that overwhelms the character too. Val Landrum deserves recognition for delivering the punchy performance of Isabelle and Sabine, one that bonds nicely with Cliton. Amy Newman plays Clarice and she lives in her character in a way that coaxes you into the fantasy, helps you forget the theater’s facade. Not a bad performance plagues the play, all actors contribute to a fun and lively show.
A June run of The Liar caps the 2014-2015 season at Artists Repertory Theatre, promising laughs across the aisle and the warm feelings that help draw an audience to return for the next season, this coming fall.