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Theater review: Peter Marks on 'The Liar' at Shakespeare Theatre Company

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; C10

Pay no attention to Adam Green, the actor who addresses the audience at the start of the confectionary game of wordplay that Shakespeare Theatre Company is calling "The Liar." The advice he offers in his compulsively metrical prologue, one rhyming "secure" and "messieurs" (the last "s" is silent) and "Row F" and "Kiev," is completely misleading.

"Turn off your brain," Green intones, and of course, this would be a big mistake. If anything, "The Liar" and its mischievous adapter, David Ives, want you to savor every meticulously groomed conceit, every stylishly turned-out couplet, every assiduously manicured joke. If your brain is set to automatic, you just might miss the verbal pairing of "Louvre" and "move-re." Or, overlook the moment when a wooer compares the object of his ardor to a clam and expresses his affection with this moving sentiment:

"You may be a bivalve, but you're my valve."

So, okay -- cringe! -- that one would be hard to miss. Think of the evening as 17th-century Parisian stand-up, a night at L'Improv. You'll giggle, you'll groan. Mostly, though, you'll be as tickled with director Michael Kahn's steadily guided production as a comparative-lit major might be when a professor tosses out a text and decides to replace it with his own comic oeuvre.

Did I mention that "The Liar" is based on a four-century-old comedy by the dramatist Pierre Corneille? Well, pay no attention to Corneille, either. Ives barely does. He uses his satirical forebear as a vague point of reference. The characters and story are basically the same, but the language and plotting take on totally Ivesian contours. At the audacity, strict classical constructionists may want to rend their doublets and shriek, "Oh, the humanities!" But most everyone else will be grateful that the company opted to expand its reach with this rarely performed play and put at its service the wit of Ives, author most recently of off-Broadway's well-received "Venus in Fur."

This new "Liar" is the first in a series of "ReDiscovery" commissions by Kahn's troupe, a project that seeks to match modern writers with old plays they'd have an interest in reconditioning. The expected offerings in future seasons include adaptations by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky and Barry Kornhauser, whose pun-filled "Cyrano" was a success for the company a few years back.

Broadening the resource base is an especially vital ambition for a classical company that seeks to put on its stages more than the usual literary suspects. Kahn has been doing this for years, largely through staged readings that serve as a kind of tryout for works on the outer rims of playgoers' experience. Main stage offerings of the wacky "Silent Woman" and compelling "Lorenzaccio" came out of this process. And now, with commissions supported by the Beech Street Foundation, a group associated with a Shakespeare board member, Kahn has a useful conduit for putting more visible company imprints on the classics.

Ives is an inveterate jester, a trait that serves him well on an evening that is all jest. "The Liar" is about a dashing teller of tall tales, played with the requisite linguistic panache by the aptly named Christian Conn, who fools everyone on the Place Royale and in the end, trips up no one more than himself. The high jinks rope in a pair of lovely lasses (Erin Partin and Miriam Silverman), a gullible father (David Sabin), an earnest servant (Green), a jealous courtier (Tony Roach) and, just to rev up the farce, identical twin maids, both played to piquant effect by Colleen Delany.

It's one of those occasions for actors to be swathed in becoming finery, all frilly gowns and trousers, courtesy of the excellent designer Murell Horton. The high-walled set by Alexander Dodge shifts seamlessly from indoor scenes to those in the fresh, irony-scented air, an outdoors adorned with poodle topiaries and trees that look like garden-grown creamsicles.

The adapter has pulled whole new sequences out of his imagination, from a speech on the high art of lying by Conn's Geronte to a duel in the park between the liar and Roach's thick-skulled Alcippe, orchestrated to guarantee that neither suffers the faintest scratch. Still, little in the way of physical exertion manifests itself during "The Liar," except perhaps the sort that requires the lingual manipulation of crystal-clear vowels and consonants.

Some of the poetic jousting will strike you as precious, particularly when a pun is anticipated half a line before it's spoken. Kahn's cast, though, has been well drilled in the reserved technique of not telegraphing the rampant silliness. These likable performers allow us to feel as if a little bit of mendacity were good for the soul.

The Liar

adapted by David Ives from the comedy by Pierre Corneille. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Jeff Croiter; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Martin Desjardins; voice and dialect, Ellen O'Brien; period movement, Frank Ventura. With Aubrey Deeker. About two hours. Through May 23 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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