Review: “The School for Lies”

A scene from “The School for Lies”  now playing at The Artistic Home Theatre, 1376 W. Grand Ave., through Aug. 13.

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: The Artistic Home Theatre, 1376 W. Grand Ave.
When: through Aug. 13
Tickets: $28-$32
Phone: 866-811-4111

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The Artistic Home Theatre takes a valiant stab at “The School for Lies,” David Ives’ mischievously marvelous 2011 “thanslapation” (the playwright’s word) of Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” but the results don’t quite make the grade.

When the production matches the play, as it did at Chicago Shakespeare Theater a few years ago, it is a hilarious satire and sex farce rolled into one. Here, director Kathy Scambiatterra coaxes stronger performances from some of the actors than others and lets the physical staging go over the top. The precision of the language tends to get lost in the chaos, as do the twists in the plot and the connections among the characters and their actions. In addition, the comic timing simply isn’t what it should be, so scenes that could have you rolling in the aisles are merely funny.

In case you’re not familiar with Ives’ method, he keeps his source play’s original setting—the Paris salon of Celimene in 1666—and verse form, rhyming iambic pentameter couplets, but totally updates the language to the 21st century with outrageous rhymes and near-rhymes, lots of sexual references, contemporary allusions, and anything else that works. He also gussies up Molière’s putdown of the extremes of his litigious society with romantic tropes from Shakespeare and other writers, among them mistaken identities, heroes lost at sea, and separated twins.

Ives’ Celimene (Annie Hogan) is lamenting the death of her beloved husband, Alceste (Molière’s Misanthrope), by surrounding herself with admirers she doesn’t care about and using them as an audience for her whip-smart if snide profiles of others in their circle. She also looks to Clitander (Ted James), who is repeated called “Clitoris,” and self-styled poet Oronte (Todd Wojcik) to help her with the lawsuit in which she’s currently embroiled, while she apparently keeps Acaste (Averis I. Anderson) around because he delights in his own stupidity. Her cousin, Eliante (Brookelyn Hebert) is demure and well-behaved by comparison, or so it seems, and Philinte (Julian Hester) is in love with her but afraid to say so.

Philinte also introduces Frank (Mark Pracht), a Frenchman newly returned from England, to the assembled, and he proceeds to offend and alienate virtually everyone with his blunt no-holes-barred commentary on them and their pursuits; in fact he’s so insulting to Oronte’s poetry that he’s sued for slander. Only Philinte likes him, though Celimene is game to go head-to-head verbally.

Then everything explodes into a free-for-all of sexploits, thanks to two lies Philinte tells as retaliation for Frank saying he likes to put on sky-blue dresses. He informs Celimene that Frank is the king’s bastard brother and can help with her lawsuit, and he reports to Frank that Celimene is in love with him.

Consequently, Frank decides to love her too, changes from his morose black attire to livelier garb, and finds that all the ladies have the hots for him. Celimene wants his help, of course, but Eliante lets loose, becoming a tiger of desire much to Philinte’s dismay, and Arsinoe (Devon Carson), the pious old hypocrite suspected of being the cause of Celimene’s problems, lures him to her place, though he’s mostly intent on retrieving some letters she stole from Celimene.

Amid the flurry of accusations, recriminations, misunderstandings, and more, the best performances come from Hogan as the prettily dimpled but bitingly sharp Celimeme in a strapless red-satin gown and towering red wig (with three pairs on sunglasses stuck into it), and Hebert as the alternately sweet and ferocious Eliante. Pracht’s Frank makes a good foil: comparatively calm, forceful, and determined in his contempt for the others, though the speed of his transformation is hard to reconcile with what comes before. Philinte is the audience’s guide to what’s going on, at least initially, and he does a likable job, though he’s stuck in a costume that’s a bit too fey, even if he does later become the queen-ex-machina in that blue gown.

Zachery Wagner’s costumes, along with the outlandish wigs and makeup, sometimes hit the mark, and sometimes don’t. Dubois (Reid Coker), the servant whose tray of canapes keeps getting upended in a running gag, wears a flowing wig that seems all wrong, and Arsinoe sports Egyptian mummy-meets-clown makeup, the mummy part being a response to a line about her eyes. Overall, they have an assembled-on-a-budget look, and the same can be said for Elyse Balogh’s scenic design, though there are a few witty touches. Cat Wilson’s lighting includes some odd cues, while Joseph Cerqua’s original music and Wilfredo Rivera’s tango choreography are amusing.

If you saw Chicago Shakespeare’s “The School for Lies,” I think you’ll find Artistic Home’s disappointing. But if you didn’t, give this one a whirl.