Believe the man in the purple pants when he says he cannot tell the truth. He is the title character in The Liar, a 400-year-old comedy by Pierre Corneille remade in 2012 into a rip-snortin’ rhyming farce by Venus in Fur playwright David Ives, working on a commission from the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C.
Yes, it's in verse. Pentameter. Perverse. For two hours (with intermission). And done in puffy shirts, pantaloons and feathered hats. But don't let that put you off. It's larf-out-lard hilarious, and that's a surprise for Theatre Three, where this show just opened and where comedy too often curls up for a nap.
Director B.J. Cleveland had never even read the script of The Liar when he was called in a few weeks ago to step in for Jac Alder, the founder and artistic director of Theatre Three who fell ill last month. (He's still recovering.) Cleveland came into the first rehearsal, put the cast on their feet and went about working some directorial alchemy. He's conjured a production full of magical fizz and giggles. Cleveland, who has starred in and directed decades of comedies at Uptown Players and just about every other theater in DFW, has drilled The Liar's actors on nailing their timing of lines, gestures, entrances, slaps, double-takes and pratfalls. They never miss a lick.
continues through May 31 at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. Tickets $10-$50 at 214-871-3300 or theatre3dallas.com.
Helps to have a young cast blessed with cuteness and bursting with energy. Zak Reynolds plays the title role, Doronte, a wealthy young bachelor bounding into Paris in the spring of 1643. He needs a servant, hiring the sweetly bumbling Cliton (Michael Kreitzinger). As a fabulist of some fabulosity, Doronte swears he is unable to speak without lying. "An unimagined life is not worth living," he tells Cliton. The servant informs his new boss that he is incapable of speaking but truth. He's also rather gullible, believing all the trash Doronte spews, including the claim that he speaks 10 tongues fluently: "Kashmiri, Syriac, Algonquin, Hebrew, High Bulgarian, Pampango, Polish, Rastafarian and Volopuke."
Those are funny words and Reynolds fires them off so fast the doubletalk alights on the ear after a short delay to let the brain catch up. Dialogue in this show is lightweight but delivered at max velocity, like confetti shot from a cannon. Ives calls his work on the old Corneille verse-play a "translaptation," a portmanteau coinage for a blend of translation and adaptation. He's played loose with his source, using the structure of the original comedy but liberally icing it with new flourishes, anachronistic references and a fresh ending. Listen fast or miss another pun or double entendre.
Like the farces of Feydeau and Molière, The Liar is built around elaborate mix-ups and sexy encounters. On his first day back in Paris, Doronte spies a prospective wife in Clarice (Jenna Anderson), who is accompanied by her friend Lucrece (Liz Millea). Clarice is already engaged to the insipid Alcippe (Dustin Curry), so when the ladies switch names, it fools Doronte. His father Geronte (Bradley Campbell, no stranger to vintage verse plays and strangely handsome in a hat that looks like a wedding cake) has already arranged his son's marriage to none other than ... one of the women. But which one? Doronte puts off his dad by saying he's knocked up a gypsy girl. The story is a whopper.
Further befuddlement befalls Cliton, who lusts after Clarice's bumptious servant Isabelle (Suzanna Catherine Fox). She has a dour twin sister Sabine (Fox again), who rebuffs Cliton, who doesn't know she's the twin and thus misunderstands the hot and cold affections. (Fox's performance in dual roles is like watching Melissa McCarthy do broad comedy in long, lacy skirts.)
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Much of The Liar involves the chasing of women and servants as they stumble over each other. Doronte on the make reveals some of Ives' giddiest verbiage. Romancing Clarice (or is it Lucrece?), he compares her to a clam. "You may be a bivalve, but you're my valve," he says. That's some molluscular wordplay.
The pink and yellow scenery by Alder is done in pastel hues of French macarons and inspired by the French Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy. Matching period costumes are designed by Bruce Richard Coleman. The actors in The Liar have lots of room to move around Theatre Three's smallish arena stage. So often here, the space is over-cluttered with extraneous bits and bobs. But not this time.
Reynolds wraps the rhyming lines in easy-to-understand conversational meter, foiling any tendency to sing-song. Everyone's good in The Liar — several are making their debuts in this show — but his is the performance that keeps the momentum up. Reynolds' Doronte is a charming scoundrel, blustering shamelessly until he finally learns to stop prevaricatin'. (His flighty mannerisms might remind you of John Lithgow in the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun.)
Along with the playwright, who made a soufflé from a dead old play, a huge share of credit for this fine evening of froth belongs to director Cleveland. He's a comedy master, passing his considerable skills along to the young newcomers in The Liar. How truly lucky they are.