Egad–imagine life riven by “fake news,” “alternate facts,” and boorish behavior?! Playwright David Ives has, and he has now wickedly transformed this thought into a gleeful roast. His new play, The School for Lies, is loosely based on Moliere’s mid-seventeenth century caricature of French oafishness, The Misanthrope, and it is one of the funniest productions ever concocted. It is the perfect antidote for our dreary times.
Playwright Ives has teamed with Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn on three previous hybrid “translaptations” commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre Company: The Liar (2010), The Heir Apparent (2011), and The Metromaniacs (2015). Ives had originally presented his version of The Misanthrope in New York in 2011, but Kahn convinced him to “look at the play again” and bring it to the Shakespeare this year. (STC ASIDES playbill, p. 9) Ives consequently has “thoroughly reworked” the play, and this version of The School for Lies is a comedy of hilarious manners rippingly appropriate for 2017.
Moliere’s “Misanthrope” was a character named Alceste, a comic fool whose central flaw was that he despised society’s hypocrisy and superficiality: Alceste refuses to tell the little lies a person must to fit into society. Instead, he demands that people display “Their inmost hearts…not mask themselves in silly complements.” (Act I, scene i) Alceste’s corrosive honesty made him an outcast, of course.
In School for Lies, his character is aptly re-named “Frank.” The play takes place in a great country house owned by Celimene, a sharp-tongued young woman who loves gossip; the other main characters are Frank’s foppish friend Philinte, and Eliante, Celimene’s cousin and Philinte’s great (but secret) love.
The set designed by Alexander Dodge is a wonderful folderol combining décor from the Ancien Regime with Mid-Century Modern: the single room set for this one-act play has enormously high Versailles-like doors but is filled with 20th century decorative arts, including a 1937 Salvador Dali “Mae West” red lip sofa center stage, a 1962 Pedro Friedeberg “Hand Chair,” a Jeff Koons “Balloon Dog” sculpture encased in a gilded cage, and a 1985 “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
Right: Veanne Cox as Arsinoé in ‘The School for Lies.’
Like the original Misanthrope, The School for Lies is written in rhyming iambic pentameter. Playwright Ives has acknowledged that “I’ve never been interested in theatrical realism, which is just seeing what you see every day in life.” (Ives quoted in Washington POST interview, 5/24/17) With verse, Ives can play with puns and encourage rampant silliness—the perfect sensibility for this romp about fakery. Ives has adopted Moliere’s optimistic belief that comedy can embarrass almost anyone into behaving better.
Left: Gregory Wooddell as Frank and Victoria Frings as Celimene
Gregory Wooddell does a fine job of conveying the outspoken Frank’s evolution from truth-seeking misanthrope into a more congenial and socially-acceptable character. But it’s tough going, and along the way his stubborn frankness entwines him in libel suits and social derision. But then he falls in love with Celimene. Played with snarky mirth by Victoria Frings, Celimene is a worthy match for Frank. Dorea Schmidt is lovely as Celimene’s more dim-witted cousin Philante, and Cody Nickell steals the show with his uproarious portrayal of Philante, who loves Eliante and whose dress ranges from elaborate foppery to an over-the-top costume as The Queen. Costume Designer Murell Horton has created sumptuous costumes that superbly evoke the 17th century while giving full-reign to the brazen antics that convulse this slapstick comedy of “manners.”
Right: Dorea Schmidt as Eliante
School for Lies is the final collaboration between David Ives and Shakespeare Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who will be retiring at the end of the 2019 season. Kahn launched his thirty-year tenure at the theater in 1986, and has steered the company to prominence as one of the nation’s leading classical theaters. In 2012 the Shakespeare Theatre Company received the Regional Theatre Tony Award, and Kahn was knighted the following year by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the arts.
Left: Michael Glenn as Basque and Gregory Wooddell as Frank
Kahn and Ives’ current production is as deliciously relevant in 2017 as Moliere’s satire was in 1660. The 18th century Enlightenment seems an aberrational blip in cultural rationalism, because it’s clear today that human behavior can never resist the lure of gossip, scandal-mongering, corruption, and Fake News. As Ives hilariously conveys, society itself is a “school for lies.”
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
THE SCHOOL FOR LIES is at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., through July 9th.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: Dorea Schmidt as Eliante in David Ives’s “The School for Lies,” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. (Photo: Tony Powell)
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery, and writes frequently on media and culture.