‘The School for Lies’
Through July 9
Shakespeare Theatre Company
450 Seventh St., N.W.
David Ives’ deliciously clever comedy “The School for Lies” now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company takes place in 1666 Paris with antics confined to the fantastical drawing room of popular young society widow Celimene coolly assayed by Victoria Frings.
It’s the time of Louis XIV but era does not dictate style here: There’s a Dali Mae West Lips sofa, an attenuated super-tall tallboy, a Jeff Koon’s dog hangs in a cage from the ceiling and the walls are papered in outsized cabbage roses. Other astonishing fixtures include three fabulously period-costumed (mostly) fops on hand vying for the lady’s hand.
But the showiest aspect of all is hands down Ives’ writing. A “translaptation” (translation + adaptation) of Molière’s 17th-century classic Les Misanthrope, “The School for Lies” is penned in elegant yet funny nonstop rhyming couplets. Ives brings the old and the new together, slyly reinvigorating a revered work with lots of new laughs and a contemporary twist.
The comedy unfolds fast and funnily when Frank (stalwart and handsome STC regular Woodsell), a high born Frenchman returning from a stay in London, makes his way into Celimene’s salon. He’s at odds with current French fashion — he dresses dourly and despises all intrigue and untruths, hence the name Frank. All other characters retain the names that Moliere originally gave them.
Frank enjoys barbing with stylish Celimene and her admirers, particularly the singularly untalented self-described bard Oronte (played wonderfully by out actor Tom Story in a red wig a la Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus”). Frank has no respect for the hostesses’ other enfeebled suitors — unfortunately named courtier Clitander and Acaste, a moneyed marquis, portrayed to perfection by out actor Cameron Folmar and Liam Craig.
Meanwhile, Frank’s unassuming society friend Philinte (the excellent Cody Nickell) who carries a torch for Celimene’s inexperienced but amorous cousin Eliante (a terrific Dorea Schmidt) livens things up with tales and fibs about secret passions and influential position sparking a romantic interest between Frank and Celimene. They like each other but for different reasons, initially any way. Gossip swirls further when Philinate is falsely accused of cross dressing. The rumor becomes increasingly believed, so with an “if-you-can’t-beat-‘em,-join-‘em” attitude, Philinte discovers he’s more successful at effecting desired results while disguised as a blue-blooded lady.
Also on hand for the fun is Arsinoé (the always entertaining Veanne Cox), a high-strung scold eager to see frenemy Celimene fail at every turn. Rounding out the cast with timing and dexterity is Michael Glenn who plays both Celimene’s graceful-but-put-upon footman Dubois and Frank’s considerably more unpolished valet Basque.
It’s all impeccably staged by STC’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn and realized by a top-notch design team including Alexander Dodge (set), Murrell Horton (costumes), Mark McCullough (lighting) and Christopher Baine (sound). At about 90 minutes, “The School for Lies” moves snappily. Any more might be too much. This is Kahn’s fourth collaboration with Ives. Past translaptions include “The Liar,” “The Heir Apparent” and “The Metromaniacs.”
Frank’s candor is refreshing. It’s nice to have a man stand center stage who speaks only the truth. “The School for Lies” is timely and Ives makes comedy hay with our current political situation. What’s more, there’s an 11th-hour treat: Ives both wraps up the show and handles mistaken identity, that staple of classic comedy, hilariously.