“A liar should have a good memory,” wrote the Roman author Quintilian in the first century AD. Abraham Lincoln tweaked that admonition a bit more moralistically to “No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” And Mark Twain put his own waggish spin on Honest Abe’s bromide with “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Clearly, we’re onto something profound here – perhaps even a universal truth.
For Dorante, the protagonist of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 French comedy The Liar (Le Menteur) – playing through August 31 at Boscobel in Garrison, courtesy of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) and directed by Drama Desk prizewinner Russell Treyz – universal truth is much too lofty and elusive a goal. He’s not quite entirely incapable of the occasional true statement, but when it happens, it seems to do so by accident: mere proof of the existence of randomness in the universe. His mendacity is not so much a compulsive vice as it is a function of his lightning wit and irrepressible opportunism.
As Dorante arrives in Paris at the outset of the play, his first act is to hire a chance-met street scalawag named Cliton as his manservant, buying his complicity in a scheme to win the heart and hand of some comely lass with a substantial dowry. His second act is to spin a tale of his prowess in battle worthy of Baron Münchausen (even though he has been nowhere near the war front), designed to impress any ladies who might be listening. A pair of young noblewomen, Clarice and Lucrece, initially take the bait, but are not fooled for long and quickly conspire to turn the tables.
Complicating matters are the facts that 1) Dorante has gotten the two women’s names mixed up, 2) Clarice is secretly engaged to Dorante’s very short-tempered friend Alcippe and 3) Dorante’s father Geronte is also in town, bent on negotiating an advantageous marriage for his son with the daughter of a noble acquaintance. That seems like enough matter to fuel plenty of pratfalls in a 17th-century French farce; but in his sparkling 2010 “translaptation” of The Liar, playwright David Ives pumps up the absurdity to a whole ’nother level. He bestows upon Cliton the constitutional inability to tell a lie, and turns Clarice and Lucrece’s waiting-women – flirtatious Isabelle and dour Sabine – into a pair of identical twins à la Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Chaos predictably ensues, with Dorante forced to rely rather too heavily on good memory as his “keystone of a master liar” before his inevitable (but not too harsh) comeuppance.
“In taking a play like The Liar, I was handed a gorgeous, intricate plot with extraordinary comic turns. And so all I had to do, really, in taking this was turn it up to 11,” said Ives. The fact that he has authored plays with titles like Words, Words, Words, The Universal Language and English Made Simple should clue us in that this is a writer who revels in wordplay above all, and his skill is on dazzling display in this masterful new/old work. Though Ives discards the original French-friendly scansion for good old reliable iambic pentameter, he preserves Corneille’s couplets and uses them as excuses for the most outrageous puns and rhymes forced through deliberate mispronunciation.
This may sound like the lowest, broadest sort of verbal humor, but the pace of the writing is so breathtakingly rapid-fire that it demands the listener’s closest attention if you don’t want to miss half the jokes – and you don’t. Indeed, it would be advisable to imbibe a cup of strong coffee rather than a mellowing glass of wine with your Boscobel picnic before taking in this show. The Liar’s archly modernized text is also densely laced with anachronistic slang, odd snippets of Shakespeare and a million other rib-tickling nuggets of clever linguistic mayhem.
Such a verbal tour de force, with the protagonist weaving long-winded, self-aggrandizing soliloquies and cleverly circuitous defenses of his dishonest method of courtship, requires an actor with as good a memory as a true master liar, along with the panache to pull off this character’s swagger without sacrificing his roguish charm. Jason O’Connell – who also turns in a notable performance as Iago’s gull Roderigo in Othello at HVSF this season – is laudably up to this daunting task. In fact, on a recent stormy night, O’Connell improvised a cheeky new couplet (rhyming “later” and “generator”) to bridge a break in the action after a brief power failure. (With the help of the sound crew, he also made his second-half entrance out of a downpour miming Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”) How an actor can whip off this demanding part two to three nights a week for two months running is beyond comprehension, but O’Connell nails it utterly. The man has comic genius – not to mention impressive endurance.
The rest of the cast are no slouches, either: Gabra Zackman gives as good as she gets in the tricksiness department as the sly Clarice, and Katie Hartke as Lucrece proves herself an absolute master at pantomime in a scene where she is coaching Clarice in a midnight rendezvous with Dorante. Maggie McDowell flips personalities on a dime as Isabelle and Sabine, driving poor abused Cliton – ably played by Michael Borelli – into ever-greater depths of perplexity. Max Hunter maintains a level of jealous apoplexy that is almost alarming as Alcippe, and shows a gift for physical comedy worthy of the days of silent movies; not for nothing is he the designated dance captain in this production.
HVSF’s production of The Liar is screamingly, sidesplittingly funny. You really need to go see it this summer. Performances at Boscobel House and Gardens’ 540-seat outdoor pavilion are scheduled for July 23, 25, 27 and 30, August 1, 5, 9, 11, 14, 20, 23, 25, 28 and 31, in repertory with Othello and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 7 p.m. on all other nights. The grounds open at 5 p.m. for picnicking and taking in Boscobel’s stupendous view of the Hudson Highlands.
Ticket prices range from $21 to $79 depending on night of the week, seat location and age of audience member. Package discounts are offered. To order or for more info, call the box office at (845) 265-9575 or visit the HVSF website at https://hvshakespeare.org.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s The Liar by Pierre Corneille, translated & adapted by David Ives, July 23-August 31, 7 or 8 p.m., $21-$79, Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison; (845) 265-9575, https://hvshakespeare.org.