WHO’S TELLING WHOM? A reimagining of a tale from the master of farce. | Photo by Craig Robinson
Please do not confuse Frank (Burke Brimmer) with the rest of humanity. And don’t call him “François.” It’s just plain old non-Gallic “Frank,” caustic disparager of humans in general and of the decadent, hypocritical artifice of 17th-century society in particular. But then love happens to him — and to a few others — in The School for Lies, David Ives’s witty riff on Molière’s comedic social satire The Misanthrope. Mad Horse opens its season with a rakish and colorful production in South Portland, under the direction of Christine Louise Marshall.
Brimmer’s spirited Frank, a man in black and the new guy in town, is already rubbing fashionable people the wrong way by telling them exactly what he thinks of them. In Paris, this is a novelty. When he is brought to the salon of Celimene (the witchy, scintillating Janice Gardner), he cavalierly skewers her frippery-laden, excellently acted three suitors: smarmy Clitander (Evan Dalzell), moronic Acaste (Shawn Reardon, playing vapid with absolute blitheness), and vain old Oronte (vigorously eager Chris Horton), all of whom evidence their frivolity by their full-on powder and rouge, brocade frock coats and be-ribboned pumps, pinks and golds and mermaid greens. And Frank particularly loathes the behavior of Celimene, whose chief pleasure is to viciously imitate her acquaintances behind their backs — so much so, in fact, that she is being sued for it.
So it makes good farce when in spite of — or because of? — his cankerous candor, Frank falls for Celimene and she for him. But of course it isn’t that easy, what with egos, mistaken identities, and competing suitors to contend with: Celimene’s ostensibly pious friend Arsinoe (the nicely viperous Kerry Ann Loomis) has some ulterior motives, while her ostensibly innocent cousin Eliante (Kat Moraros) also loves Frank, despite herself being beloved by the meek courtier Philante (Nate Speckman), who is himself rumored to wear women’s clothing.
All this transpires, as in Molière’s original (of which The School for Lies is not a translation but a reimagining) in rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter, which Ives modernizes. He memorably rhymes “hemorrhoidal itch” with “gibberish,” liberally dispenses well-loved epithets like “jerk,” “asshole,” and “douche,” and fills his characters’ mouths with breezy crassness (“You’re about as promiscuous as a bedpan”). It’s witty but not precious, intricate but not belabored. Rhymed couplets are a tall order for actors to keep up for two hours, but aside from a few scenes when the iambs feel a little too counted, the cast handles the poetry with winningly nimble phrasing, especially Loomish and the lead amoureux, Gardner and Brimmer.
Marshall’s actors do a stellar job with the range of these contrasting personalities; the three suitors are especially good when it comes time for each to make their ungodly proposals to Celimene. As her supposed BFF, in Loomis’s hands Arsinoe is evil fun when her carefully measured piousness cracks open; and as Eliante, the marvelous Moraros builds her ever-delicious comic timing from the subtlest of twitches to a big, luxurious, wanton tantrum — and what she does with the word “wallow” in her mouth is simply sumptuous.
Our leads Brimmer and Gardner also have great comic chemistry and delivery as lo, Frank and Celimene achieve earnestness and candor. They may even deserve each other’s love, and Ives certainly gives them a better and more unlikely break than Molière saw fit.
The School for Lies | by David Ives | Directed by Christine Louise Marshall | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, in South Portland | through October 13 | 207.747.4148 | madhorse.com