To call David Ives’ “The School for Lies” merely an adaptation of “The Misanthrope” is to sell it short.
This dazzling mash-up currently playing at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul definitely owes a debt to Molière, but its cleverly wrought rhyming couplets are also tempered by infusions of Shakespeare and rollicking French farce and topped with a healthy dose of pop culture, resulting in a frothy concoction as dazzling as the brilliant chandelier that overhangs the set.
“The School for Lies” is set in 1666 France and employs the framework and characters of “The Misanthrope” (with the title character renamed Frank in a not so sly reference to his brutal honesty). It’s a world of air kisses and extravagant compliments, of hypocrisies and polite fictions, as epitomized by social butterfly Celimene and her circle of friends.
Surrounded by a trio of truly ridiculous suitors, played with prancing panache by David Beukema, Brandon Bruce and John Catron, Celimene sees Frank as the equivalent of a blast of arctic air when he first enters her drawing room. When the unlikely couple falls in love, they unleash a series of comical mishaps unfolding in a dizzying display of mistaken identities, looming lawsuits and bawdy sight gags.
Under the sure direction of Amy Rummenie, the Co-Artistic Director of Walking Shadow Theatre Company, and with the aid of an outstanding cast, this play unfolds with the precision and brilliance of a complex piece of music.
John Middleton’s Frank is a commanding presence, simultaneously bristling with contempt for the society that surrounds him and complacent in his superiority to it. He’s well matched by Kate Guentzel as a sassy and satirical Celimene, a woman who both loves and loathes the hypocrisies of her world, as demonstrated by her scathing send-ups of her acquaintances.
Other standouts include Skyler Nowinski, clowning his way through dual roles as servants, and Andrea Wollenberg, as Celimene’s priggish rival. Jason Rojas and Anna Hickey are perfectly charming as the mostly innocent bystanders unwittingly pulled into this mélange of misunderstandings.
The real star of this show, however, is Ives’ language. His grasp of the intricacies of the rhyming couplet form is astonishingly sure as he juggles idioms that juxtapose lofty erudition with anachronistic jargon. It’s hard to imagine the ubiquitous “LOL” being incorporated into iambic pentameter verse and even harder to imagine it being done with such panache.
Complete with Robin McIntyre’s glittering set and Susan E. Mickey’s stunning costume design, this production makes nary a misstep and underlines with wicked glee the timelessness of hypocrisy and humanity’s limitless capacity for self-deception.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.