Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Liar
Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up


Sha Cage, Sara Richardson, India Gurley,
and Zach Curtis

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma
I will tell the truth: I had a terrific time at The Liar, David Ives' 2010 adaptation of French playwright Pierre Corneille's 1644 comic farce Le Menteur. Ives has held onto the conventions of the original's form—dazzling wordplay and cleverly rhymed couplets, mistaken identities, confusion among similar names, a pair of twins, and ludicrous plot development—and updated those with contemporary references and slang. Director Doug Scholz-Carlson has staged The Liar's Minnesota premiere at Park Square Theatre with the breathless physical pace typical of comedies at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, where Scholz-Carlson is Artistic Director. The result is a constantly engaging show with abundant wit that elicits continuous hearty laughter.

The feather-weight plot serves as a trellis on which the comedy is draped. Dorante, the titular liar, is a rakish young man of means who arrives in Paris with the singular affliction of being incapable of telling the truth. In fact, whether he is incapable or merely unwilling to tell the truth is up for grabs, as on several occasions he points out the advantages falsehoods hold over reality. In any case, in short order, Dorante takes on Cliton, a young man who bears the opposite burden, the inability to lie, as his valet; meets and falls in love with the coquettish Clarice (unfortunately confusing her name for that of her boon companion Latrice); and learns that his father, hoping to steer Dorante into a settled life, has arranged for his son's marriage to the daughter of an old friend.

Dorante concocts a ridiculous lie to worm his way out of his father's plan, in order to woo Clarice, whom he continues to call Latrice. Unknown to Dorante, Clarice is secretly engaged to the virtuous Alcippe who—wouldn't you know it?—was Dorante's best friend in childhood. Added to this mix are the twins Isabelle and Sabine, maids to, respectively, Clarice and Latrice, who could not be more dissimilar in temperament—blowsy, uninhibited Sabine making shameless overtures to Cliton, while grim, tough-as-nails Isabelle rebukes Cliton with her icy glares. As happens in real life, Dorante can only escape entrapment in his lies by spinning more lies into a tangled web. Cliton is both appalled and dazzled by his master's capacity for lying, and wishes he shared some of that talent, as when Sabine saucily asks Cliton if he doesn't consider her a perfect "10" and he can't help himself but to respond that she is only an "8."

The play's action is punctuated by on-stage musician Don Livingston playing a harpsichord. Most of the music is drawn from motifs of the period, a genre Livingston knows well, as director of the Twin Cities Early Music Festival and a professor of harpsichord at Concordia University-St. Paul. All that doesn't prevent an occasional lapse into familiar pop music riffs. The music interacts with the actors with such panache that it veritably becomes another character.

Heaping one more grand falsehood upon the entire enterprise, Scholz-Carlson has cast a woman in the role of lying man Dorante. That actor is Sha Cage, and, with her unflagging energy, ability to convey faux sincerity, and dexterity with intricate word play, she pull off the lie in spades. Ms. Cage is extraordinary in serious roles—as her 2015 Ivey award winning tour-de force in Grounded attests—but she also has high-test comic chops, by way of her wondrously expressive face, slippery tongued command of language, and lithe physical presence.

In the past year Cage has played two other notable male characters—Prince Hal in Ten Thousand Things' Henry V and Thurio in Jungle Theatre's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In this gambit, Cage brings an androgynous nature to Dorante's character, a man who survives not by virtue of his hulking presence or commanding voice, but by being nimble, both in word and action.

The rest of the cast are all in top form, with Zach Curtis's Cliton a splendid comic foil to Dorante, reveling in the physical comedy that is one of the production's pleasures. As the two prospective love interests, India Gurley is comically assertive and confident as Clarice, while Sara Richardson is delightfully restrained as Latrice. Shannon Custer puts her class-A talent for mugging to great use as the twin maids Isabelle and Sabine. JuCoby Johnson's youthful good looks and earnest countenance are perfectly suited to the role of Alcippe. Rex Isom Jr. as Dorante's father Geronte, and Michael Ooms as Philiste, a companion to Alcippe, each have their own moments in the comic spotlight.

Director Scholz-Carlson has ensured that every member of his cast has an opportunity to contribute to the hearty fun. In return, they all seem to be having a terrific time, creating a contagious light-heartedness.

Those familiar with Scholz-Carlson's work at Great River Shakespeare Festival will recognize the galloping comic pacing, and the use of the entire space, including the aisles. The physical production for The Liar embellishes the conceit of living one's life amid falsehood. The set designed by Eli Schlatter cleverly presents three-dimensional scenes on two-dimensional surfaces—not in technically proficient ways that deceive the eye, but in the manner of an exercise in perspective and vanishing points that make the falseness of the scene both obvious and funny. Furniture and props are similarly two-dimensional, allowing for amusing business such as attempts to lounge upon the painted image of a divan.

Rebecca Bernstein's eye-catching costumes exaggerate the gaudiness of 17th century lace and jacquards, except for Cliton, the honest valet, who is dressed like a refugee from Occupy Wall Street with a riotous shock of hair (kudos to wig designer Sara Huebschen) erupting from a bandana tied as a headband.

Not everything in The Liar works. Some of the shtick wears thin, such as Lucrece's piercing scream each time the grim maid Isabelle enters. The rhyming couplets, extremely clever for the most part, and often hilarious, occasionally fall flat. At times the rapidity of the dialogue make it hard to catch. But there are far more hits than misses in the script and in its execution. Is The Liar an important play? No. Does it deliver profound insights on the nature of truth or the folly of falsehood? Not really. Does it entertain, in large part by poking fun at the inherent falseness of theater? Absolutely. This is not great theater, but it is a great time at the theater, a tonic for the strain of serous living that occupies most of our days.

The Liar continues at Park Square Theatre on the Proscenium Stage through October 2, 2016, at 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets: $40.00 – 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats on day of performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Writer: David Ives, adapted from La Menteur by Pierre Corneille; Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Scenic Design: Eli Schlatter; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Wig Design: Sara Huebschen; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Jamie J. Kranz; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Diekman

Cast: Sha Cage (Dorante), Zach Curtis (Cliton), Shannon Custer (Isabelle/Sabine), Isa India Gurley (Clarice), Rex Isom Jr. (Geronte), JuCoby Johnson (Alcippe), Don Livingston (harpsichordist), Michael Ooms (Philiste), Sara Richardson (Lucrece).


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