Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Jan. 20
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Some adaptations of famous plays are faithful and others are free, but David Ives’ “The School for Lies” goes several fathoms beyond any version of Molière’s “The Misanthrope” you’ll ever see. Watching Director Barbara Gaines’ exuberant, extravagantly designed production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I had the distinct impression the playwright was showing off and perhaps even thumbing his nose (affectionately) across the centuries at his French counterpart, taunting “I can do anything better than you.”
Ives takes the basic setup, structure, and 1666 setting of the Gallic comedy and catapults them into the 21st century with a boatload of creative anachronisms, both verbal and visual. Like Molière (and Richard Wilbur in this well-known translation of “The Misanthrope”), he writes in rhyming couplets, iambic pentameter no less. His mastery of this difficult form is dazzling, and the actors gamely deliver torrents of clever dialogue laden with witty barbs, double entendres and contrived rhymes (or near rhymes) that require rapt audience attention just to keep up.
But that’s not all. According to the program notes, Ives thought “The Misanthrope” was a romantic comedy without the requisite romance, so he decided to do something about that. The result is a mash-up of Molière and Shakespeare with a soupçon of Chekhov, Sheridan and several others. Mistaken identities, multiple suitors, cross dressers and long-lost brothers are among the familiar Bardic tropes fueling a plot with a hilarious finale featuring a couple of stunning twists. This isn’t so much a satire of hypocrisy in a litigious society of flattering sycophants — though that element is present — as it is an outrageous sex farce.
The stand-in for Molière’s misanthrope, Alceste, who was determined to tell the truth no matter what the cost — here lost at sea and mourned by his young widow Celimene (Deborah Hay) — is one Frank (Ben Carlson, Hay’s real-life husband), a Frenchman recently returned from England. His new friend Philinte (Sean Fortunato) brings him to the Paris salon of “Celi,” where he continues the tradition of brutal honesty by critiquing the poetry of boulevardier Oronte (Greg Vinkler), inviting a lawsuit, and observes his hostess, who’s due in court the next day for a slander trial, skewer the pillars of society for her adoring suitors Clitander, frequently called “Clitoris” (Paul Slade Smith), Acaste (Kevin Gudahl) and Oronte.
When Frank lets out that Philinte likes to dress in women’s clothing, Philinte, who is in love with Celimene’s cousin Eliante (Heidi Kettenring), retaliates with a double lie. He tells Celimene that Frank is the king’s bastard brother and can use his influence for her case and reveals to Frank that Celimene loves him. Frank decides the only thing to do is to love her in return and undergoes a remarkably lusty transformation. But complications arise when Frank also becomes the object of desire for Arsinoé (Judith-Marie Bergan), the snide old moralist who has it in for Celimene, and for Eliante, whose passion for another sends the shy Philinte over the edge.
Propelling such an elaborately embellished story to its finish isn’t easy, but Gaines manages it adroitly, although prolonged antics bog down a few scenes. On the other hand, the ensemble seems to be having so much fun, it hardly matters. Carlson is ideal as Frank, at first so uptight in his Puritan black, then totally unbridled in his pursuit of Celimene, and all the while incredibly eloquent in his command of the convoluted dialogue. Hay matches him moment for moment, their chemistry is terrific and her comic timing is impeccable; her first big scene, with its send up of the social celebs — complete with rap and valley girl forays — is simply delicious. Speaking of delicious, Samuel Taylor’s performance as her canapé-flinging servant, Dubois, is a gem.
While Fortunato’s socially attuned-turned-unhinged Philinte and Kettenring’s kind-hearted Eliante are entirely enjoyable, seeing Gudahl as the rich marquis Acaste, a lisping fool who revels in his own stupidity, is a hoot, as is his bit with a balloon. Vinkler’s very funny Oronte and Slade’s Clitander complete the three stooges, and Bergan is dryly droll as the nasty, letter-stealing Arsinoé.
Dan Ostling’s savvy scenic design pairs a fairly straightforward 17th-century drawing room with a spectacularly over-the-top chandelier (think “Phantom” updated times ten), setting the tone for the contrasts that make the evening a success. Susan E. Mickey’s Alexander McQueen-meets-Halloween costumes in pastels plus reds, golds and other bright hues are equally wonderful, especially coupled with Melissa Veal’s wigs and make-up. Every detail has been attended to with aplomb, from Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design, which segue from classical to rock, to the Franglish opening voiceover message to turné vous off your cell phones, mesdames et messieurs.