SCOTT SUCHMAN / SHAKESPEARE THEATRE COMPANY
If you’re persuasive enough, you can get away with just about anything.
At least, that’s the credo that our anti-hero Dorante lives by in “The Liar,” a brilliant adaptation of the original 1644 comedy by Pierre Corneille. Theater has never been more self-aware as it is in this hilarious piece of work abound with misunderstandings, iambic pentameter and convincing split personalities. Directed by Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the play debuts at the Lansburgh Theatre and runs until May 23.
Starting with an introduction by a destitute named Cliton (Adam Green), the play couldn’t be what it is without its over-the-top yet endearing characters. Cliton is cursed with the inability to tell a lie, a trait that perhaps drew him to the wayward law school graduate of Dorante (Christian Conn). Serving as the antithesis to Cliton, Dorante is downright beguiling when it comes to charm and wordplay, a skill he uses to exaggerate his accomplishments and get him out of trouble. To him, lying is the spice of life, a necessity if one wants to stand above the monotony of dull reality.
The starting point of what becomes a network of fabrications is when Dorante meets Clarice (Erin Partin) and her quiet friend (Miriam Silverman) on his first day back in Paris since law school. Instantly enraptured by Clarice’s beauty, he decides to win her over by waxing poetic about his recent return from a made-up war in Germany. Clarice, as cautious as she tries to be about this overzealous stranger, still finds herself charmed by his playful advances but doesn’t reveal her name. After she leaves, her maid Isabelle (Colleen Delany) tells Cliton that “the pretty one” is named Lucrece, which is actually the name of Clarice’s silent friend.
The rest of the play follows this pattern of mind-boggling wordplay and layer after layer of misconceptions, bolstered by Dorante’s instantaneous ability to spin the truth. The iambic pentameter delivery of the dialogue makes for some chuckle-worthy moments between the characters, as each utterance is almost like a punch line. The play is malleable to just about anyone’s sensibilities and the frenetic pacing is never cumbersome during notable scenes, such as when Dorante goes on a fantastical tirade about his romp with the fiancée of one of his closest friends.
“All the world’s a lie, and all the men and women merely liars,” chimes a dreamy Dorante in the second act. As each scene builds on the other, the play keeps you on tenterhooks at all times, making you wonder what will happen next as a result of Dorante’s trickery. We never once question the morality of what he is doing because we are having so much fun. The play does not try to justify or analyze Dorante’s actions, but celebrate them. Perhaps, even for just a moment, we’re even agreeing with his life philosophy. Whenever we see him on stage, we actually want him to lie in order to keep us entertained. This could only be made possible by an excellent playwright.
When David Ives was asked to translate the original play for the adaptation, he had never heard of it before in his life. But after spending several hours reading the script with a French dictionary in hand, he realized that he would soon partake in a gem of comedic theatre. He was particularly attracted to how the plot was so simplistic in its premise yet so profoundly rich in humor, characterization and social satire. Calling his version of the play a “translaptation” — a translation with heavy dose of adaptation — he went about his work with the mindset of a playwright.
While the ending of the play is admittedly abrupt and unexpected — and not necessarily in a good way — it just works as a reminder that the entirety of the play is a farce. There may be very brief moments where the dialogue can be rather unflattering, which in turn makes the acting slightly off-key. Still, “The Liar” is another excellent production by the eminent Shakespeare Theatre Company, backed by a solid cast and an addictive story.