by SOPHIE KERMAN
Director Amy Rummenie couldn’t have picked a better time of year to stage a drawing room farce: if you’re feeling stuck in the doldrums of a long, cold January, The School for Lies is just the kind of diversion to shake off a winter chill.
The play, by David Ives, is a very loose adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope. To sum up, the blunt and curmudgeonly Frank goes around insulting everyone, until a series of lies and misunderstandings lead to a kaleidoscopic progression of love triangles (diamonds? star shapes?). In a diversion from the plot of the original Molière, an unexpected and extremely pleasing deus ex machina appears to sort things out, and love triumphs in the end.
This is a more light-hearted – and less pointed – take on The Misanthrope, much closer to a British comedy of manners than a French social satire. But what Ives sacrifices in terms of his characters’ complexity, he redeems in the brilliance of his language. In iambic pentameter (again, closer to Shakespeare than to Molière’s alexandrines) and punctuated with a liberal use of vulgarity, Ives has written a decidedly modern play that sparkles with wit. In fact, it is the clever rhymes that are really the star of the play; no matter how invested you are in the characters’ romantic ambitions, the verbal gymnastics keep the play sharp.
The same degree of flash covers the whole production, from Robin McIntyre‘s glittering set to Susan E. Mickey‘s exuberant costumes. Where there can be an extra ribbon or ruffle, you can be sure to see one – and the actors wear them well. The entire cast plays their parts to perfection; they know when to wink at the audience and when they are acting in complete earnest. The trio of women – flirtatious Celimène (Kate Guentzel), earnestly repressed Eliante (Anna Hickey), and Arsinoé (Andrea Wollenberg), who brings cattiness to a whole new level – play wonderfully off each other: watching Celimène and Arsinoé trash each other was one of the most delicious moments of the play. Celimène’s three suitors (David Beukema, Brandon Bruce, and John Catron) are absolutely ridiculous, and Jason Rojas is delightfully awkward as Philinte. As the brutally honest Frank, John Middleton provides a good contrast to all the courtly fawning; through no fault of the actor, however, the further in love he is, the less interesting the character becomes.
But perhaps one of the biggest indicators of Rummenie’s success as a director is not her masterful adornment of the Park Square‘s large stage or her ability to pull such charming (and well-articulated) performances out of her actors; rather, it is the attention to detail that can make even the smallest part into a scene-stealer. As a pair of increasingly put-upon servants, Skyler Nowinski gets a laugh every time he appears on stage. In the midst of all the antics, he embodies an arch and understated current of mockery for the petty frivolity of all kinds of social goings-on. As a complement to the blatant bawdiness and shimmering wit of the rest of the script, the servant’s wry resignation is a well-placed counterpoint with a message that Molière would certainly approve of.
The School for Lies, by David Ives, directed by Amy Rummenie. January 10 – February 2, 2014 at the Park Square Theater, 20 W. 7th Place, Saint Paul. Tickets $38 and $58. Box office: 651.291.7005. www.parksquaretheatre.org.