David Ives is a playwright who isn't afraid of a challenge. He built his reputation on All in the Timing, which brought together six off-the-beaten-path short plays for a single evening of theater. He tackled the infamous 19th-century piece of pornography (and Velvet Underground song-inspiring tome) Venus in Fur, which had a terrific run last winter at the Jungle Theater.
Now you can catch his singular wit — as seen through the filter of caustic French playwright Molière — in Park Square Theatre's excellent production of The School for Lies, playing through February 2. The production sports a strong cast and bridges satire and serious drama. It's tied together by excellent scene and costume design and thoughtful direction from Amy Rummenie.
Ives faced a number of challenges with this adaptation of Molière's The Misanthrope, not least of which were the rhyming couplets employed throughout the original. Ives dives into these, using anything at hand — classic turns of phrase, vulgar language, and even a bit of message-board speak — to keep the rhymes going. Ives has also played with the story a bit, providing characters with slightly different, hidden motivations than those of the original play. This gives the ending a sweeter tone, without shortchanging the verbal fireworks or the pokes and prods at society.
And there are pokes and prods aplenty. The play satirizes upper-class life in 17th-century Paris, which isn't all that different from contemporary life in America. The idle folks gossip endlessly about their enemies and their so-called friends, while putting up a false, happy front whenever those people are present. Widower Celimene (Kate Guentzel) has gone too far and is facing a suit for slander. That in itself isn't all that rare — it appears that everyone in this gossipy society spends time in court for slander of some sort.
Into this situation walks Frank (John Middleton), who stands in complete contrast to the rest of the characters. He is decked out all in black and is going to tell the truth, no matter the consequences. When faced with a horrid love poem from one of Celimene's suitors, he calls it what it is — total garbage — and ends up sued before the court as well.
Soon, a simple but massive lie — that Frank is a prince in disguise — sets up a flurry of actions and counter-actions among the various factions. As in any good farce, the plot would collapse if anyone stopped long enough to tell the truth, but there's only one character ready to do that, and he has his own reasons for holding his tongue until the end.
Ives mines the various situations for all the humor he can, via deft wordplay or more physical means, and the actors are prepared for both. Guentzel and Middleton provide real sharpness. Neither character is willing to give in to romance, even as it starts to bud around them, which gives their scenes plenty of delightful friction that sparks some theatrical heat. They have a strong group of actors and characters to play against, from Anna Hickey as cousin Eliante, who falls for Frank, to Andrea Wollenberg as rival Arsinoe, who appears to know how to handle Frank and his misanthropic ways. The play also has its own three stooges in David Beukema, Brandon Bruce, and John Catron, who play Celimene's suitors with mincing glee. Decked out like 17th-century glam rockers, they have less than a single brain to share among them, and the actors relish this.
The production is gorgeous, from Robin McIntyre's elegant set to Susan E. Mickey's exaggerated costumes and David Hermann's massive wigs. Rummenie keeps the pace tight, but never so fast that it is hard to follow, which is important when we have actors rhyming at every turn.