‘School for Lies’ a brilliantly dazzling homage to Moliere
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org December 13, 2012 11:26AM
‘THE SCHOOL FOR LIES’
When: Through Jan. 20
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 300 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
Updated: December 15, 2012 9:08AM
‘Monsieur Moliere is dead, but he sends his regards.”
To be sure, playwright David Ives sets us straight from the start in his bristlingly clever prologue for “The School for Lies,” now in director Barbara Gaines’ gorgeous-to-look-at, altogether dizzying production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
But as the program reminds us, while this is Ives’ “adaptation” of “The Misanthrope,” the 17th century Frenchman’s comedy of sex, love, hypocrisy and the scathing invective of the chattering class, he has served as far more than a literary remix man for the play. Yes, he has grabbed hold of Moliere’s general plot line and characters. But he has catapulted those characters’ language, and certain aspects of their behavior, right into the 21st century. And he has done so with the sort of verbal compulsiveness, whiplash-inducing speed, bluntness and variety that might well cause his francophone predecessor to turn baroque somersaults in his grave.
Meanwhile, Gaines (who clearly has had the time of her life with this show), and her nine bravura actors (whose verbal and physical skills are mind-boggling), seize hold of Ives’ words, and run with them as if their Alexander McQueen-meets-Vivienne Westwood couture costumes were in danger of catching fire.
The play is set in the fantastically decorated salon of Celimene (Deborah Hay), a still young and beautiful widow whose beloved husband was lost at sea two years earlier, and whose sharp wit and coolly flirtatious manner might well be a protective facade. Enter Frank (Ben Carlson), a Frenchman just back from England. (He claims to being a theater critic, and is rumored to be the bastard brother of the king). Dressed in Puritan black, Frank is obsessively devoted to brutal candor — an extreme response to the grotesque ass-licking style of all those around him. It is a quality that proves both alienating and oddly seductive.
Frank and Celimene can each give as good as they get, so of course they are destined to fall in love — though not without much chaos and confusion, and the presence of three ridiculous suitors played in high camp style by Paul Slade Smith, Greg Vinkler and Kevin Gudahl. (Samuel Taylor, maestro of flying canapes, is on hand to carry off more than a few fast-change miracles, playing the two very different yet remarkably similar servants of Frank and Celimene.)
As for the inevitable romance between Celimene’s seemingly demure cousin, Eliante (Heidi Kettenring), and the somewhat shy Philinte (Sean Fortunato), it also has its many hilarious twists and turns, with each of them emerging from their shells in quite unexpectedly wild ways.
Along the way, Frank becomes not only the object of affection of both Celimene and Eliante, but the target of the older and more brittle Arsinoe (played to the hilt by Judith-Marie Bergan), Celimene’s poisonous spider woman of a friend.
Hay is a petite, wide-eyed woman with porcelain skin and a pliable face that can be at once beautiful and comedic. Neat trick. So are her wonderful impressions of both a rapper and a Valley Girl. Carlson, her real-life husband(the two work most often at Canada’s Stratford Festival), is the perfect earthy foil for her glamor. As for those Chicago-bred wonders, Fortunato and Kettenring, they are unquestionably two of the smartest, funniest, most eccentric performers on any stage.
Daniel Ostling’s sea-green velvet and gilt set is glorious, with a piece de resistance in the form of a gargantuan chandelier that makes the one in “Phantom of the Opera” look like a bare bulb. Susan E. Mickey’s spectacular costumes — in tones of rose, purple, red, gold and pink (with Eliante’s dress like a candy box lined with doilies), would make Marie Antoinette green with envy. And Melissa Veal’s wigs have a comic existence of their own.
Ives, who giddily borrows from Shakespeare, Beckett and Chekhov as well as Moliere, is clearly a verbal acrobat of the highest order. And just when you find yourself wondering who might be more exhausted — the actors, who must think and speak at the speed of light, or the audience, who must listen compulsively — Gaines keeps it all moving with the sort of torquelike motion that suggests lies are just truths sent spinning.