The Liar, a classic French farce from 1644 by Pierre Corneille has a new translation and adaptation by David Ives, and the University of Houston is presenting it at its Jose Quintero Theatre. The protagonist is Dorante, a gallant of whom it can be truly said "the truth is not in him." The lies flow as glibly as a mountain stream, and the humor is compounded as his memory for what he invented is deeply flawed. With typical Gallic savoir-faire, there is no moralizing, just a fascinating tale of human chicanery. The execution:
This production is directed by Jack Young, and it is flawless, and Young is courageous beyond belief in taking risks and pulling them off. The result is great fun in all directions, and also a production so polished by all its designers that I kept thinking: probably nothing this good on Broadway.
Young has cast against type as Dorante is described as handsome, and is portrayed by Harry McEnerny, attractive but portly. McEnerny's energy, charm, and jubilant enthusiasm, however, are so devastatingly alive that the gamble pays off, well, handsomely. McEnerny holds the stage like a master, even alone, but fortunately it is often shared by Joshua Clark, portraying Cliton, a servant for hire. Clark is the perfect foil for McEnerny, and they play off each other brilliantly, with Clark's quicksilver portrayal of honesty (he cannot tell a lie) the polar opposite of Dorante's cascading embellishments.
The damsels are Clarice (Constance Swain) and Lucrece (Katie Marsh), and they are both beautiful and wonderful. Swain has the more vivacious role, and her dynamic strong-willed charm is captivating. Marsh more often has to demonstrate disapproval, which she does convincingly, with her own delightful style. Dorante, a lawyer newly arrived in Paris from Poitiers, has met them in the park, intriguing them with an invented tale of his courage on the battlefield against the Germans.
Dorante's father, Geronte, is played by Kenn Hopkins, Jr., in a commanding comedic style that communicates authority and yet warmth, with his own jubilant zest for life. Another gallant is Alcippe (Tom Conry), who manages to carve out a distinctive persona even while wearing a costume so distinctive it should get its own separate billing in the program. All the costumes are brilliant, inventive and colorful, and costume designer Leah Smith has the courage of a lioness as she combines delightful excess with beautiful fabrics, and then adds a generous dose of wit.
The costumes match the characters, of course, and Cliton's coat is so rich in emblems and memorabilia as to be staggering, with many of these deliberately anachronistic for added humor. One character's socks are adorned with a portrayal of the Eiffel Tower, and designer Smith shows us how well red polka dots go with red-and-white gingham, and white lace - even on a male.
Alcippe is accompanied by his friend, Philiste, portrayed by Kyle Powell with consummate patience and steady warmth. Isabelle, maid to Lucrece, with a hand always ready for a pourboire, is played by Kat Cordes with dry comedic style; she also plays her twin, Sabine.
The set, by Jean Gonzalez, is green and pink and flowery and, though simple in design works wonderfully to set the stage as sugar-coated and festive.
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The plot seems razor-thin, as Dorante has confused the names of the two young women, but it is more than enough to fuel contretemps after contretemps. The heart of this comedic gem is the rich body language of the actors as they interact with each other, far more important here than the dialogue, and this body language is served up with a series of brilliant "secret greeting" fraternity-style inventions that are absolutely hilarious. The dialogue is delivered in verse, and playwright Ives uses even this for humor as a character is sometimes compelled to search his brain for a rhyming word.
Jack Young's brilliant direction delivers a comedic tour-de-force that is devastatingly good, with superb acting and a production polished to perfection by its multiple designers, creating a must-see theatrical event of enormous fun.
Through November 24 at the University of Houston, Jose Quintero Theatre, 133 Wortham, Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., $10 to $20, 713-743-3003, uh.edu/class/theatre-and-dance/