By Tristan Lejeune
Near center stage: a red Mae West Lips Sofa. Against the single, long, curved back wall: a bright white, three-story highboy dresser with its own library ladder. Suspended from the ceiling: a giant gilded birdcage containing a balloon-animal dog sculpture that looks like it would be of considerable interest to Jeff Koons’s legal team.
The lighting is all pastels, like an ultra-mod Easter Egg. Claes Oldenburg’s giant spoon and cherry rest atop an Ionic column. Buster Bluth’s hand chair has been spray-painted gold. This … is 17th century Paris.
Hell yes, it is.
As reimagined by playwright David Ives and director Michael Kahn, Moliére’s Le Misanthrope is candy-colored delectation, 95 minutes of anachronistic silliness, frivolity, and, thankfully, wit. The characters and costumes are Louis Quatorze, the furniture and dialogue (the bones, as it were) are po-mo. Kahn and Ives know that swing-sets and jungle-gyms need to be made of strong steel if you’re going to play hard. Rechristened The School for Lies, this farce from the Shakespeare Theatre Company, going on until July 9, is a kick — and a damned pretty one at that.
Frank (Gregory Wooddell) is newly returned to France after years abroad, and he’s disgusted by what he finds. The corruption, the indulgence, the decadence — and mostly the rampant hypocrisy. Amidst powdered wigs and perfumed handkerchiefs, Frank strides around in black leather boots, condemning everything he sees in rhyming couplets as the men around him take foppish umbrage and then legal action, while all the women fall in love.
The Beatrice to this sharp-tongued Benedict — his classmate in the school for lies — is Celimene (Victoria Frings), a young high-society widow trying to get her beauty-marked suitors to help her with trouble in court of her own. Beneath their respective hairpieces, Wooddell and Frings spar like pros. Frank and Celimene hate each other so much at first that it’s obvious they’ll end up together, but their performances, and very 21st century exchanges, are so good you don’t mind. Particularly amusing is when Frank, clad in stockings and a waistcoat (the costumes from Murell Horton are a hit), tells Celimene he could “be your desert-island disk!”
Also bringing the laughs by the barrel is the supporting cast. No one’s afraid of looking foolish, but they seem to be having a good time as well. Cody Nickell’s Philinte, Frank’s one true ally, is hilarious, both in and out of drag; only now, he says late in the game, do I understand how much society is built on lies. Veanne Cox’s Arsinoé gets one of the play’s best scenes in a throwing-shade match with Celimene. And as the show’s only on-stage servants, Michael Glenn turns two small parts into plenty of memorable takes to the audience.
The story, which includes multiple proposals and counter-proposals, as well as the requisite stolen love letters, is fluff. But under the droll direction of Kahn, who also serves as the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director, the actors all flourish. And back and forth across Alexander Dodge’s gorgeous set (production photos don’t do it justice), Ives’s script shines through, another “translaptation” reminder that he might be our greatest living playwright.
School for Lies has apparently been shortened considerably since its New York run in 2011, though it could still use an act break. Its run time is not so much that restless theatre-goers need to stretch before it’s done, but the intricacies of the (frankly nonsense) plot build to such a fever pitch, it would be good to get an intermission before they are, at last, resolved, evaporated like champagne bubbles.
I’ve seen maybe two dozen plays in the Washington area so far this year, but School for Lies is the first I’ve been seriously tempted to revisit for a second viewing. It isn’t that it’s necessarily better than Theatre J’s Copenhagen, Arena Stage’s Raisin in the Sun, or STC’s own exceptional King Charles III, but its pleasures — visual and verbal, humorous and dramatic — combine in such interesting ways, it begs a repeat.
It’s like eating bonbons while strolling through the Museum of Modern Art.