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The Liar

Pierre Corneille is better known for his tragedies, but you wouldn't know it by this witty David Ives adaptation of his farce, The Liar. If you ever wondered how much Molière borrowed from his elders (Corneille was 16 years older) in French farce and commedia dell'arte, this well-honed production provides a variety of valuable insights into that query.

Drew Cortese as Dorante
Drew Cortese as Dorante
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Like Molière and most French playwrights of the era (due largely to the Aristotelian philosophy prescribed by Cardinal Richeleau to conform plays to the dogma of church and state), Corneille's work centers on one person, in this case Dorante (Drew Cortese), the title character, whose ability to spontaneously invent tall tales makes for an evening of ever-ascending confabulation, with hilarity and irony at every twist and turn.

Cortese's delight in sharing these marvelous inventions is infectious, and we eagerly lap up the hyperboles and await the next impossible exaggeration. But there is a method to Corneille's farcical mask: like Molière, he uses absurdity to thoroughly lash the powers that be, including politicians and clergy, lawyers and doctors, and other licensed "experts," much as commedia always has (the form was invented during a political and economic crisis—Sound familiar?—in 16th Century Italy, becoming the first form of professional theatre). "Lying is an art," Dorante tells his servant, Cliton (Matt Zambrano), while outlining the requirements for a sophisticated practitioner.

Pierre Corneille, 1606-1684
Pierre Corneille, 1606-1684
Photo: Wikipedia
Painter: Anonymous
Musée national du Château de Versailles
But apart from his adherence to the single-character prescription, breaking the Aristotelian code of "classical unities" (unity of action, place, and time, i.e., limiting the play to one plot, one setting, and one day) brought Corneille artistic and political criticism from Richelieu, which limited the popularity of his plays; so, it is up to us to reconsider the playwright's gift.

Certainly, Ives helps here. Among his many talents, Ives is an adaptor and script doctor extraordinaire, as evidenced by his work on Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear and Mark Twain's rediscovered Is He Dead?, plus the libretto for Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

Ives' use of anachronism—e.g., a modern city map with alpha-numeric axes used to find a location, a pocket watch, a gun, musings on bipolar disorder, and more—echoed judiciously in director Kent Thompson's snappy staging in-the-round of the Space Theatre, adds another level of humor to the already rich double and triple entendres that this farce displays in spades.

(Left to right) Matt Zambrano as Cliton and Drew Cortese as Dorante
(L to R) Matt Zambrano as Cliton
and Drew Cortese as Dorante
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Zambrano shines as Cliton, Corneille's sophisticated take on the stock zanni character Pedrolino, who can only tell the truth. As you can imagine, this sets up constant comic friction between Cliton and Dorante, a dialectic through which the playwright delivers his perspective on the role that lies play in our everyday personal and collective interactions.

(Left to right) Amelia Pedlow as Clarice and Jeanine Serralles as Lucrese
(L to R) Amelia Pedlow as Clarice
and Jeanine Serralles as Lucrese
Photo: Terry Shapiro
It's the love interests, Clarice (Amelia Pedlow) and Lucrece (Jeanine Serralles), that reveal the effectiveness and limitations of lies in love and romance. In their woman-to-woman scenes, Corneille's self-conscious stage jokes meet the girls' use of theatre as a metaphor, much as the ladies in Shakespeare's Loves Labors Lost have some laughs at their male counterparts' expense. Pedlow's physical magnetism and Serrales's emotion appeal make a great one-two punch against Cortese's boundless glee at altering the truth as it serves his character's purposes.

Of course, there comes a time when Dorante's impromptu fictions catch up with him, largely through the efforts of these alluring woman and his father, Geronte (Robert Sicular), who wants nothing more than for his son to "grow up and settle down." Here, again, Corneille provides a sophisticated take on a commedia stock character and gives him flesh and blood, as Sicular's work so finely illustrates. Part of the credit goes to Thompson as well, for recognizing the subtlety of Corneille's work and bringing it to us with the refinement that it deserves, including equally compelling performances from the rest of the ensemble (John-Michael Marrs, Jonathan C. Kaplan, and Amy Kersten). The craft work (costumes, set, and lights) are impressive as well.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of David Ives adaptation of Pierre Corneille's The Liar runs through October 16th. 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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