Chicago Theater Review: THE LIAR (Promethean Theatre Ensemble at Athenaeum Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 30, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


We’ve seen a lot of lying lately—enough to make Pierre Corneille’s 1644 comedy The Liar cruelly contemporary. An uncharacteristic farce from a famously tragic dramatist, it’s even more zany in David Ives’ “translaptation,” now on exhibit by the Promethean Theatre Ensemble at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre. Ives, who has similarly updated (for better or worse) Molière (The School for Lies) and Jean-François Regnard (The Heir Apparent), doesn’t just translate: This wild wordsmith (All in the Timing) runs a neo-classical verse play through a stylistic buzz saw. Ives manically and doggedly indulges in galvanic wordplay—puns, neologisms, feminine rhymes, jog trot scansion, forced pentameter, and compulsive borrowing from the Bard. It’s a wonder that Corneille survives this mashup or that director Ed Rutherford controls the stage action amid the verbal distractions and pyrotechnics.

Even in a social satire the high-minded Corneille can’t avoid pointing a moral. Here it’s the self-defeating stupidity of chronic lying or, as Bernstein’s Candide puts it, “All this scheming and plotting/ You end up with notting.” Mendacity is doubly dumb when the truth is easier to recall and, so they say, can set you free. Of course, 373 years after Corneille penned this clumsy comedy, the cautionary lesson of a young deceiver tripped up by his own lies has political as much as psychological significance.

A romantic dissembler in love with his own overwrought imagination, Dorante (Josh Hambrock as a 17th-century goofball) is also an unpleasant trickster who can’t play fair. Always looking for an “airtight alibi,” he just paints himself into one corner after another. After he meets two ladies—Clarice (saucy Meghann Tabor) and Lucrece (demure but intense Katherine Schwartz)—in the Place Royale’s Tuileries, he brags of having won a recent war in Germany, one invention paving the way for another.

So it’s poetic justice that Dorante is misled by his own misapprehension, confusing the names of these Parisiennes. He falls in love with “Lucrece,” when it’s really her best friend Dorante who attracts his fickle ardor. To add to the mistaken identities, Dorante’s valet Cliton (officious Brendan Hutt) amorously confuses two very different twin servant girls (one capricious, the other puritanical—and both played by supple Megan DeLay), despite their very different costumes and temperaments.

Dorante’s fussbudget father Geronte (Michael Hagedorn) arrives to announce Dorante’s engagement with the real Clarice. Reluctant to wed the “wrong” girl (except that she’s not), Dorante, ever ready to spring a fiction, concocts a cover story that he’s already wed (and the fictitious maiden is pregnant too). Far from simplifying his strategizing, the fabrication complicates it tenfold. It doesn’t help that Dorante’s childhood chum Alcippe (stentorian to shrieking Shane Roberie) barges in to say that he is the one engaged to Clarice. A duel—here moronically narrated to death—ensues.

Fibbing one too many times to Geronte, our no-longer-nimble purveyor of “alternative facts” risks being disinherited. To resolve this twisted tale, Corneille himself resorts to credibility-straining coincidences—and a sudden cringe-worthy change of heart by Dorante. By play’s end four couples have sorted themselves out and head for the altar.

Whatever was subtle in 1644 seems ballistically blatant in Ives’s self-referential script. The cloyingly clever dialogue is so crammed with anachronisms that this Liar will soon be more dated than Corneille ever was. Perversely broad and loud, Rutherford’s anything-for-a-laugh 140-minute staging exaggerates what was already outsized. The sensible thing would be to pull back from Ives’s buffoonery and, as much as the plot permits, make these personages plausible. Alas, far from seeming like defensive attempts to conceal his adolescent insecurity, Hambrock’s tall tales get increasingly tedious—and feel more like Ives’s desperate efforts to jump-start a sputtering plot.

If the characters weren’t, well, caricatures, we’d find more fun in all this falsehood. But, rather than exist in their own eccentric right, they all sound like Ives—and here “sound” is the operative word.

photos by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography

The Liar
Promethean Theatre Ensemble
Athenaeum Theatre Studio Two, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2; (Industry Night May 8 at 7)
ends on May 27, 2017
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Promethean Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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