So what is the truth about "The Liar," David Ives' loose adaptation of a 17th-century French farce? It's a play that is spoken in verse, for better or worse, with a story hardly worthy to parse.
Ives ("Venus in Fur," "All in the Timing") has tarted up Pierre Corneille's slight piffle with verbal slapstick and modern sass — inflating conceits about love and mistaken identities that were already old when the French writer hoisted "Le Menteur" in the mid 1600s.
Director Doug Scholz-Carlson takes it from there in an indulgent, hardworking production that opened Park Square's 42nd season on Friday night.
Actors Shá Cage and Zach Curtis lead a cast that eagerly plays the commedia instincts left over from Corneille and uses the entire auditorium as a playground. Shanan Custer and Sara Richardson are the most articulate physical comedians, and Curtis — looking like a time traveler from the 1970s — is a most likable chump.
Scenic designer Eli Schlatter built a cheap cardboard facade meant to replicate a Paris street, with quite clever set pieces that reinforce the conscious artifice in Scholz-Carlson's vision. On this tableau, Cage's Dorante rolls into town, secures a valet in Curtis' Cliton and sets about to find somebody to love.
In Dorante's head, he has discovered such a woman in Clarice (pouty India Gurley), except that he thinks her name is Lucrece (which is actually the droll Richardson's character). What's more, Clarice is engaged to dull Alcippe (JuCoby Johnson), setting up a raft of hijinks. Cliton and Philiste (Michael Ooms) are in love with twins (both played by Custer).
If you're in the mood for this winking spoof, replete with wordplay in which "Louvre" is coupled with "move-re," then by all means grab a seat for Scholz-Carlson's ambitious production. He and his cast don't miss a trick and composer/musician Don Livingston punctuates the entire show with a remarkably fine harpsichord accompaniment.
Scholz-Carlson thought much longer about casting this play than I did in the two-plus hours it takes to watch. Yet, the nagging feeling is that Cage, for all her zest, seems an odd choice. Dorante would be best as a slickster, a trickster, a sharp-tongued huckster whose words are lubricated with oily charm. Cage's best work — and she has done so much of it on Twin Cities stages — is in strong, declarative roles. She plays epic characters full of honesty and heart and sincerity. Here, Dorante's slippery duplicity does not rest easily on her shoulders.
Cliton can only tell the truth, and Curtis uses that curse as license for lots of second-banana style shtick.
"The Liar" is one of those plays that can divide theatergoers. You might find it a witty, saucy rib tickler; your wincing friend might say it's a bit inane. You're both telling the truth.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic.