Kate MacCluggage

The Art of Lying

Review of The Liar at Westport Country Playhouse

The name David Ives conjures memories of his first huge hit, All in the Timing, which was, but for Shakespeare’s plays, the most produced play in the country in 1995-96. Likewise, in the 2013-14 season, productions of Ives’ Venus in Fur also came second only to productions of Shakespeare. And speaking of Shakespeare, Ives has created much of his remarkably successful career by translating, adapting, rescuing, re-tooling, or—and he says this himself—respectfully ripping off the tales and ideas of other authors (duly cited, of course).

So it should come as no surprise that Ives’ play The Liar is an adaptation of a classic comedy from 1643 by Pierre Corneille (itself based on a Spanish play of apparently deserved obscurity). For the most part, we come to Ives seeking hilarity. The Liar, a French farce beautifully directed by Penny Metropulos and performed by a stellar cast, does not disappoint. Ives retains Corneille’s verse form and provides laughter in every line. Far from becoming tedious, the verse only augments the fun—especially when Ives twists syllables to rhyme, or adds in enough anachronisms to keep the language zany and surprising. The cast, for its part, enables one to forget about the verse within minutes, except when the playwright wants us to notice it.

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Of course, The Liar concerns, well, a liar. Its main character, Dorante (the skilled and unexpectedly sweet Aaron Krohn) spins lie after lie as his very mode of being. Whenever he’s in a tight spot, or when simply making conversation, the most elaborate, overblown fictions spring from his imagination. For instance, when wishing to impress a friend, Alcippe (the very funny Philippe Bowgen), with his amorous triumphs, Dorante describes his night with a certain lady with outrageous and delightful double entendres. Amidst the verbal riches we all—except Alcippe—may forget that the latter is engaged to the lady.

Indeed one beauty of The Liar is that Dorante’s extravagant stories keep us from growing weary with the plot of unmasking a truth we already know. Another beauty is that the women, far from being ornamental objects of the men’s desire, are, if anything, wittier, cleverer, and more determined in their goals than are the men.

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

As Lucrece, the initially quiet friend of the more garrulous and showy beauty Clarice, Monique Barbee has arguably the more difficult role and plays Lucrece with sensitivity and grace. As Clarice, Kate MacCluggage’s charisma derives from her palpable joy in acting and her expert fun with the language (MacCluggage was marvelous as a witch in the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage production of Bell, Book, and Candle in 2012).

Also expert is Rebekah Brockman, who gave us such a poignant Thomasina in the Yale Repertory Theatre's Arcadia this past fall. Brockman plays identical twin ladies’ maids: Isabelle, sensual, and Sabine, sanctimonious (and especially quick with a hard slap). The object of Isabelle’s desire and Sabine’s scorn is Cliton, Dorante’s hapless servant (Rusty Ross), as compulsively honest as Dorante is compulsively mendacious. Completing the cast is Brian Reddy, very funny as Dorante’s father, and Jay Russell as Philiste, friend and advisor to the hotheaded Alcippe.

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Matching the wit of the script and the sparkle of the cast is a set design by Kristen Robinson that is at once very French, very modern, and delicious to look at: the light green trees put one in mind of pistachio sorbet. The furnishings—black and white, spare and elegant—make for precisely choreographed set changes performed by the cast to French music (designed by David Budries) that sounds like a mix of hip-hop and 1980’s electronic dance tunes. The lighting design (Matthew Richards) heightens our sense of a disco-inflected present. And Jessica Ford’s costumes—as crazily beautiful for the men as they are for the women—complete our transportation to a colorfully unreal world.

On several occasions, characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, making us complicit in their acts of lying. In one of these memorable addresses, Dorante even dips into the subject of existential despair, dodging out of it with a comforting lightness of touch. Certainly, The Liar can be enjoyed as simple, silly farce, but the philosophical questions the play elicits make it a comedic and ironic meditation on the truth, and so very French.

Dorante (read Ives via Corneille) deeply understands not only the necessity of lies as we construct the facets of our social selves, but also the more profound ways in which lies make life not only pleasurable, but bearable.

The Liar
By David Ives

Adapted from Le menteur by Pierre Corneille
Directed by Penny Metropulos

Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Voice & Text Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Set Design: Kristen Robinson; Sound Design: David Budries; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Costume Design: Jessica Ford; Props Master: Karin White; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
Westport, May 5-23, 2015

Are You One Of Them?

John van Druten’s Bell, Book & Candle is a play from a time when subtext was anything not acceptable to polite convention.  His characters have class, in a vaguely bohemian milieu (it’s set ostensibly in the 1950s’ Greenwich Village), and they preen and pose with the regulated pauses of the great screen stars of the 1940s.  In such a world, the fact that there are things going on that we can’t talk about (we’ve since learned to call them subcultures) would be still somewhat risqué for the average audience.  Van Druten, with his comic suggestion that a hunt for witches might turn them up “anywhere,” is a bit ahead of the widespread search for Communists and their sympathizers in the McCarthy “witch hunt,” and way ahead of the political self-outing of the gay community.  And yet, in Darko Tresnjak’s production, more respectful than revisionist, those associations are clearly present—to say nothing of any other sub rosa collectivity that might come to mind.

The square to be initiated into it all is Shep Henderson (Robert Eli), a publisher without much imagination who’s all set to marry a Southern harridan we only hear over the phone, until a sort of accidental run-in with his neighbor, the mysterious and grandly available Gilllian Holroyd (Kate MacCluggage), sends him soon enough head-over-heels and all over the floor for her.  Tresnjak makes the couple couple much more quickly than they ever would have in films or plays of the period, but not, one assumes, than they would’ve in wicked old Greenwich.  It’s to the play’s credit that it seems written for adults—it gives one a nice frisson of nostalgia to watch something that might appeal to people who were all grown up in the 1950s, happily unaware of what the various coming cultural revolutions would do to entertainment.  This is romantic comedy before The Pill and Women's Lib.

Case in point: recall the days when a leading man needed only to be a presentable hunk who looks good in a dinner jacket.  Eli does, and his Henderson has the doggedness of a man who isn’t expecting much excitement or surprise from life and then finds both in the form of his neighbor, a woman who, supposedly, he’s barely noticed until her witchcraft changes his tune.  And of course, “witchcraft,” here is synonymous with whatever “feminine wiles” our parents alluded to when they talked about how a gal gets her man.  The fact that Gillian’s wiles are indeed supernatural adds charm rather than menace, but with little of the slapstick spell-casting that was a staple of TV's Bewitched, the Sixties sitcom that recalls some of Van Druten's characters.

Van Druten’s dialogue never sizzles or pops, its sense of the humorous is droll more often than clever, full of charm rather than laugh-filled.  It’s the kind of play that won’t work without a game cast willing to become anachronisms with relish, and Tresnjak has coached his cast to get the feel of lines uttered on a sound-stage and etched on celluloid.  MacCluggage especially—who was last on the Long Wharf stage as a 40s’ radio actress in Eric Ting’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life—has the look, moves, and voice of a screen star of the era.  Always dressed seductively and lit perfectly, she carries herself with feline pleasure in her every move, her voice sensual in its precision, a sympathetic seductress about to be hoist on her own petard: making Shep fall in love with her, she finds that she fulfills “the old wives’ tale” that a witch in love loses her powers, becoming merely human (with a touch of Doris Day).

The play pirouettes on the familiar theme of lovers’ truth: if, in love, we should always be ourselves, why does it always feel so risky to be honest?  What’s more, once a gal’s wiles are seen through, then what?  Be warned, suspense isn’t really a feature of this plot, but that doesn’t matter.  Though two intermissions drag out the playing time, the pleasures of the show come from the exacting pace, Alexander Dodge's wonderfully mod set, from its “womb chair” to its suspended fireplace to its snowflake chandelier, Fabio Toblini's bright and sprightly costumes—particularly Aunt Queenie (Ruth Williamson)’s revamped Andorra (the Agnes Moorehead character in Bewitched) and the jackets and cape sported by Gillian’s teasing brother Nicky (Michael Keyloun, a study in understated camp), and that game cast.

The cast is filled out by Gregor Paslawsky as Sidney Redlitch, a toupee-wearing, booze-swilling “witch expert,” played with the broad panache of a sitcom’s zany neighbor or clueless boss.

Today, vampires and zombies are our chosen avatars of supernatural allegory.  Once upon a time, in a Manhattan of sparkling martinis and swirling mambos, of barefoot femmes fatales clad in capri pants, of songs by Sinatra and Ella evincing the spirit of swagger and swing, witchcraft—which has, in New England at least, real historical antecedents—could stand for all those “practices” not yet relegated to the melting pot.  Bell, Book, and Candle is a fun throwback to a time not so much innocent as blithely indifferent to the changes to come.  And, in Tresnjak’s version, the play ends with a nice touch not in the script, a way of indicating that love without witchcraft is, perhaps, rather Puritan.

Bell, Book & Candle By John Van Druten Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Long Wharf Theatre March 7-April 11

Photos by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre