The Liar and Shepard/Beckett
Also see Tim's reviews of Pookie Goes Grenading and Freud's Last Session
The Liar was adapted from a 1643 Pierre Corneille play by David Ives. Ives not only translated the text and modified the plot but also, like Corneille, wrote the play in verserhymed iambic pentameter. Much of the joy of watching The Liar comes from the cleverness of the rhymes and seeing how Ives crafts his jokes to fit the rhyme scheme. For instance, here's an exchange in which Alcippe (the romantic rival to our prevaricating protagonist Dorante) and Alcippe's fiancée Clarice marvel at Dorante's skill at spinning tall tales:
Country lawyer (and braggart) Dorante claims to be a military hero to impress a pair of lovely ladies he meets on his first day in Paris, but when he decides which of the ladies to pursue, he gets their names mixed up. His father arranges his marriage to one of the ladies, but to the wrong oneor is it? Dorante, of course, has a lie ready to get him out of that engagement. Meanwhile, Dorante's servant Clitonwho, naturally, can only tell the truthis bewitched by Isabelle, the randy maid to one of the ladies, but gets her confused with her identical twin Sabine, the prudish maid to the other lady.
With me so far? It's all crystal clear under Kathryn MacMillan's confident direction, with all eight cast members displaying great diction and command of Ives' often tricky language. As Dorante, the baby-faced Aubie Merrylees seems barely a step ahead of the trouble he's creating, while Dave Johnson's Cliton observes his employer's shenanigans with a look of befuddlement. Sarah Gliko is sharp and forceful as the sophisticated Clarice, with Emilie Krause offering fine support as her more subdued friend Lucrece. Emily Rogge is fun as the sharply different twins, and Jake Blouch is a hoot as Alcippe, a dashing but pompous swordsman who can't figure out why he's losing his girl to a charlatan. Blouch and Merrylees shine in the show's funniest scene, a swordfight in which Dorante manages to fight to a draw without once drawing his blade (J. Alex Cordaro is the fight director). And there are vintage-style costumes from Maggie Bakerthe ladies get some gorgeous gowns, and the error-prone Cliton gets britches that don't quite match and don't quite fit.
Playwright Ives is nothing if not versatile: His philosophical courtroom drama New Jerusalem just finished its second run at the Lantern, and his erotic thrill comedy Venus in Fur will make it into town later this season. For The Liar, he's concocted an adaptation that not only shows off his nimble wit but requires a deft cast to pull off its every ridiculous twist. The cast of the Lantern's enjoyable production comes through.
The Liar runs through December 2, 2012, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $20 to $38, with discounts available for students and seniors, and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, or online at www.LanternTheater.org.
So says a character in Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe, one of the four short plays that make up InVersion Theatre's new presentation, Shepard/Beckett. If you have a "craze for explication"or, in other words, if you prefer realism to symbolismthe works of Beckett and Sam Shepard may not be for you; Beckett's abstract work can confound as much as it fascinates, and much of Shepard's work follows Beckett's lead but adds a brooding tone informed by the American counterculture. Yet at their best, these four works can be absorbing. They're best served by a scrupulous, disciplined approach to the text and the movements, which director William Steinberger provides in this well-done production.
Shepard's work is more accessible by far, and his Red Cross provides a lot for the audience to enjoy, especially with its wild comic monologues by Lizzie Spellman as a woman who imagines a skiing excursion that turns gory, and by Hannah Gold as a meek maid who gets coaxed into simulating a swimming lesson on a hotel bed. Will Thompson plays a man with a hygiene problem who affectsand infectsthe two women in different ways. In the other Shepard piece, Killer's Head, Brian Ratcliffe delivers a mesmerizing, wide-ranging monologue about horses, cows and trucks, all while sitting in a chair with a bandana across his eyes. It's only at the speech's end that we find out the reason for that bandana. In Beckett's haunting Footfalls, Spellman is affecting as a woman who spends eternity trudging through twilight, hearing only the distant voice of her mother (Gold). And in Catastrophe, Ratcliffe and Spellman are a dictatorial stage director and his eager-to-please assistant, manipulating the body of a silent actor (Thompson) to fit a prearranged visionand robbing him of his free will in the process.
Sarah Elger's scenic design has a crisp, clinical look. The stage is filled with boxes and boards covered tightly with white sheets, and the boxes serve as everything from a plinth for the silent actor to stand upon in Catastrophe to a pair of beds in Red Cross. Rachel George's lighting is as precise as the actors' movements, varying in extremes of intensity to meet the characters' moods.
InVersion's Shepard/Beckett won't convert you into a fan of these two playwrights if you're not a fan already. The playwrights' visions are bleak and bizarre, even when there's humor to lighten the mood. But those with a taste for the experimental will be grateful for these reverent takes on the work of two irreverent artists.
Shepard/Beckett runs through November 18, 2012, and is presented by InVersion Theatre at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15. For tickets and more information, visit www.inversiontheatre.virb.com.