Hypocrisy is the glue holding civilization together. Tell grandma “thank you” for the nice socks! The child seethes, then speaks through gritted teeth. Thank you for the nice socks, grandma. Civilization endures. But the inner child longs for a prophet who speaks the truth without fear. A George Carlin. A Bill Hicks. An Alceste.
The first two being deceased American comics. The third being the hero of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.” In the deceased French playwright’s original 17th-century play, Alceste was an irritating crank. In “The School for Lies,” David Ives sizzling 21st-century update, he’s rechristened Frank, but he’s still the prophetic bad boy speaking harsh truths that civilized sheep keep to themselves. He does so in 17th-century France where oversharing could get you thrown in jail. (Slander leads to shackles: it’s the law.) The stick of society won’t make him shut up. Ah, but the carrot of love will …
I could say more, but spoilers are uncivilized.
Suffice to say that, from a writer’s perspective, Ives is a source of delight and jealousy. He translated and adapted (or, as he says “translapted”) Moliere’s original five-hour carriage ride into a crisp, 100-minute jaunt on le train de grande vitesse. And, just to make the trip a bit more interesting, Ives amped it up with rhyming couplets. Not stilted, eye-rolling, pseudo-Shakespeare. Hilarious rhyming couplets, stuffed like canapés with anachronisms, sly references and inside jokes. Oh, and while he was at it, Ives changed Moliere’s ending. And made it better.
It’s perfect text for comedy theater. Perfect, in the sense that a high wire is a perfect place to stroll in the circus tent. It’s a high level of difficulty — and a long way to fall. But director Greg Leaming, crew and cast (nearly all of the acting conservatory’s second year class) make it look easy.
Leaming’s direction is the full-on assault Ives’ text demands. It’s a play about bad art, bad manners and the bad faith of good manners. It’s funny and smart but it isn’t nice. The director never flinches from Ives’ intellectualized offshoot of insult comedy.
Matthew R. Olsen brings the necessary edge to the misanthropic lead role. Frank is, well frank — like an elbow in the eye. Olsen flawlessly lays down the verbal firepower. He comes on like a verbal hurricane, reminding you of every avant-garde Jeremiah you wouldn’t invite to your garden party.
The rest of the cast parties like it’s 1666. (Most of them even keep the same names from Moliere’s original.) There’s Olivia Williamson’s Celimene — the yin to Frank’s yang. She also sneers at hypocrisy, but responds with satire, not spittle, in a warm, bubbly comic performance. Andrea Adnoff’s Eliante burns with righteousness — and lust for Frank. (As cartoonist R. Crumb pointed out, the loud obnoxious alpha male at the party is usually surrounded by women.) Oronte (Matthew Andersen), Clitander (Paul Herbig) and Acaste (Jory Murphy) don’t have this problem. They’re feckless fops, reminiscent of the powder-wigged duo on “Saturday Night Live.” A bad poet, a bad lover and a moron: such (based on the play’s evidence) was the cream of France’s elite. Gracie Lee Brown’s Arsinoe is side-splitting as a thumbscrew Christian who missed that “judge not” passage. Brian Owen’s Philinte is a good-natured fellow, dodging rumors of transvestism started by Frank — and, in the end, stops dodging. (As Moliere and Shakespeare knew, there are times a dress can save the day.) Michael Frishman (in a dual role as porter and long-suffering canapé wrangler) is a deadpan working-class hero. As partygoers go, this is a great bunch. The partygoers have a rocking party palace thanks to Chris McVicker, the set and lighting designer. Thanks to David Covach, the party isn’t naked. His lush, lurid costumes create a colorful mash-up of Louis XIV and Louis CK.
“The School for Lies” is great theater — brainy text, brilliantly realized and entertaining from start to finish. It’s as sweet and satisfying as a fresh petit fours. When the play ends, you don’t want it to. The sweet taste stays with you when the experience is over. Good plays, parties and pastries have that in common.
IF YOU GO
“The School for Lies” runs through Nov. 17, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org/conservatory for more information.
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