David Joseph, left, and Enrico Spada in The Liar
It’s entirely apt that Shakespeare & Company has mounted The Liar as its late-winter entertainment. For one thing, David Ives’ up-to-the-minute adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century farce was commissioned a couple of years ago by another Shakespearean troupe. For another, Ives was reportedly drawn to this obscure play because he found it “like a Shakespearean comedy, with a sparkling, wonderful plot.” And just for good measure, he worked on his version with the Sonnets as models of iambic verse, and flagrantly littered his script with quotes and misquotes from the Bard.
Ives, who’s best known for his series of playful one-act comedies, All in the Timing and Time Flies, as well as the Broadway hit Venus in Fur, calls his very free version of Corneille “a translaptation, i.e., a translation with a heavy dose of adaptation.” Indeed. He has dismantled Corneille’s original and reconstructed it with the panache of a master jester. The result, Ives claims, is “the play Corneille would have written today, in English.” I agree, and approve. Theater should be accessible, and Ives—as Tony Kushner previously did with Corneille’s The Illusion—blows the dust off this 370-year-old proto-gem and makes it work for today.
The premise is classic and timeless. A young nobleman for whom lying is like breathing (“The unimagined life is not worth living,” he boasts) falls for a young beauty but confuses her name with that of her best friend. When mayhem ensues, he lies himself into ever-deeper entanglements.
So much for Corneille. “Vernacular” doesn’t begin to describe the liberties Ives takes with the original. Plot elements are rearranged, expanded, dispensed with or invented, minor characters are conflated or cut, and the language, while retaining a classic elegance and Corneille’s rhyming verse forms, is unabashedly modern. Those couplets offer irresistible opportunities for groan-worthy rhymes. The fictifying hero’s resolve to “pitch her woo” pairs with “switcheroo,” advises a student of the fabulist’s craft to “get thee forth and multip-lie,” and proclaims that “Lying is an art [and] truth’s a fart.”
In S&Co’s Bernstein theater last weekend, I felt I was responding exactly the way Corneille’s audience did when Le Menteur was the hit of the 1643 season in Paris—exploding with laughter at the zany situations and unrelenting wordplay, delighting in the recognition of universal faults and foibles—as I wouldn’t have, faced with a more “faithful” translation. And that’s due just as much to this production as to Ives’ script.
Under Kevin G. Coleman’s fluid direction and led exuberantly by David Joseph in his first, well-earned S&Co lead role, the young cast rips through this comedy of mannered errors with madcap zeal. I particularly enjoyed Douglas Seldin as the valet who cannot tell a lie but wants to learn, Dana Harrison as identical-twin maids, one prim and sour, the other cheerfully horny, Emily Rose Ehlinger and Alexandra Lincoln as the befuddling femmes, and Enrico Spada as the latter’s fussy fiancé.
All great comedies are not just diversions but microcosms of the world viewed through a ticklish prism. The message here seems to be that we all navigate our sphere with deceptions and self-deceptions. As our mendacious hero observes—with a nod to Shakespeare, of course—“All the world’s a lie, and all the men and women merely liars.”•
Through March 24 at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox. (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.