“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Yes, but practice makes perfect — and Dorante has clearly had a lot of practice. He’s the hero (if that’s the right word) of David Ives’ “The Liar,” the Asolo Conservatory’s current production.
In all honesty, here’s the plot summary:
Dorante (Scott Kuiper) is a rich kid, fresh out of law school with time to kill in 17th century Paris. On his first day in town, he meets two lovely ladies: Clarice (Kelly Elizabeth Smith) and Lucrece (Jessie Taylor). Dorante instantly puts his legal education to work and starts lying his head off to impress them. (Evidently, this prodigious prevaricator is a multilingual, sexually athletic war hero who’s best pals with the queen.)
While spinning his spiel, Dorante gets the ladies’ names and faces mixed up. For the rest of the play, he bends over backwards wooing a woman he doesn’t like (Clarice) while avoiding his doddering dad’s (Michael Fisher) attempts to marry him to the woman he does (Lucrece). His hot-tempered old pal Alcippe (Wyatt McNeil) mistakenly thinks he’s going after his fiancé and goes for the jugular. Meanwhile, Dorante’s servant Cliton (who, unlike Clinton, cannot tell a lie) falls for the lovey-dovey Isabelle (Jillian Courtney), not realizing she has a kicky-slappy identical twin named Sabine (Jillian Courtney redux), thus confusing him mightily. And speaking of zygotes, like Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, Dorante and Cliton turn out to be fraternal twins. As far as marriage goes, everybody who isn’t hitched yet will be. No lie.
OK. With all the twins, marriages and mistaken identities, this feels like a long-lost Shakespeare comedy. Actually, it’s a nearly forgotten Corneille play. Ives took it apart and put it back together, as he did with Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.” The playwright describes this process as “translaptation”—a portmanteau of translation and adaptation. The result here is a farrago of verbal pyrotechnics — a barrage of one-liners in iambic pentameter. The man can bust a rhyme and make you bust a gut laughing as well. His zingers include …
“Find an asbestos tux and button it well / I’m only meeting you in Hell.”
“You may be a bivalve, but you’re my valve.”
“He minted all those lies; I stand in awe / Well, let us not forget; he studied law!”
Dr. Seuss comes to mind. Or Tom Lehrer.
Director Justin Lucero delivers Ives’ verbal comedy with a screwball comedy pace. Lucero and movement coach Eliza Ladd add plenty of physical comedy (translapstick?) to make sure you’re enjoying the ride. Their priceless bits of business include: a scene where Dorante and the fawning Philiste (Brett Mack) try to out-grovel each other and wind up on the floor; Alcippe and Dorante’s “Star Wars”-style sword-fight with imaginary swords; and the silent comedy of Lucrece and Clarice watching Dorante’s latest jive session while eating popcorn and wearing 3-D glasses.
Fine performances from the student actors bring this baroque Looney Tune to life. Special kudos to Scott Kuiper. He hits on all cylinders as Dorante — approaching a Steve Martin/Robin Williams level in several sidesplitting scenes. Becki Leigh’s costumes remind me of the futuristic frippery of Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem.” Loud colors for loud people. Chris McVicker sets the scene with an Astroturf garden. If 16th century France had shopping malls, their outdoor food courts would look like this.
Entertaining stuff. It adds up to a bizarre character study. Or the study of a bizarre character.
As liars go, Dorante is weirdly appealing. He isn’t a malicious liar, a con artist or an ancestor of Kaiser Soze. He lies for the pure fun of it. Dorante’s confabulations are a form of show-offy, imaginative play. The same could be said for the play (or playwriting) itself. Ives, in fact, says it. He spells out the connection between lying and the actor’s art throughout “The Liar.” Most quotably:
“All the world’s a lie and all the men and women merely liars.”
The moral of his story? It’s not what you might think. As Dorante puts it:
“How liars are punished by their own lies / Was not the moral of this exercise.”
“But rather how, amidst life’s contradictions / Our lives can out-fick the finest fictions.”