I think there are a lot of people out there who assume that because a story is old, or it’s performed in a manner dissimilar from the kinds of things they’d see in movies or television that it can’t be funny. That French farce is too fancy, and not the kind of thing that will make you laugh so hard you need to catch a breath. But in the past few years, the translated (and slightly updated) versions of some lesser known (to general audiences) French plays at the Shakespeare Theatre have really brought the house down. I’m thinking “The Heir Apparent” and “Metromaniacs”. Shows with wildly lush production value with amazing sets and costume that also happen to be set sometime in the 1600-1700s, and yet are hilarious and relatable.
The Shakespeare Theatre has struck gold with another such adaptation, this one being “The School for Lies”, which is based on the Moliere play “The Misanthrope”. That’s definitely one I’ve heard of, and while I’m sure it’s very funny in the original French, it sounds to me like it would be vaguely intimidating. But playwright David Ives – who also did the updates/translations of the previously mentioned plays – does an amazing job. “The School for Lies” is not so much a translation of “The Misanthrope” as it is an update. And even then it’s been updated again, because the show originally played off-Broadway back in 2011, to wild acclaim. But when director Michael Kahn wanted to put it on in DC, he asked Ives to take another look. This second pass seems to have been the golden touch, for there are so many delightfully funny and pointed jokes at DC’s (and our national government’s) expense, that it makes the jokes land that much harder. What is easier than to laugh at the ridiculousness around you?
The plot is frivolous and frothy – Frank (a blunt man who always speaks his mind) is visiting his friend Philinte in France, and discovers that the French society has become lawsuit-happy regarding slander and insult. Any little thing may be taken as cause for the courts to get involved. Philinte is staying at the home of the beautiful widow Celimene, who is also being sued for libel, and known for her sharp parodies of her friends. Celimene and Frank clash, and after Frank shows how quickly a rumor can spread (with the intimation that Philinte likes to dress up like the Queen of France) Philinte decides that he’ll mess with Frank by convincing Celimene that he is bastard brother to the King (and can help her with her lawsuit), and tells Frank that Celimene is in love with him. And that’s it. Simple, right? Ha!
The cast is generally outstanding, and very tight in their performance. Lines are delivered humorously at a rapid-fire pace that feels like it could belong on television, and while the entire script is rhyming, it is done in a way that feels natural and buoyant. There are DC and Shakespeare Theatre familiar faces in killer supporting roles, including Veanne Cox, Tom Story, and Liam Craig. Which is not to single them out, because I feel like the cast did an amazing job of supporting each other in the ridiculous heights to which the story asks them to climb.
And that’s all just the acting. The stage is dressed in a way that makes you think you’re going to be watching a modern show, what with it’s lip sofa, birdcage and golden hand chairs, a Jeff Koons-style inflatable dog in a birdcage, and the iconic spoon and cherry which you can see at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. So when the characters walk in wearing full late-1600s French frippery with ruffles, ribbons and technicolor it makes both no sense, and complete sense. Of course this is the sort of life and setting that these people would set themselves in. It wouldn’t have looked exactly like this, but the posturing towards modernism? Totally there.
I cannot recommend this show enough. It is easily my favorite of the year. Before we even walked in, we had a chat with an usher who told us that someone who had seen dress rehearsals also thought it was the best of the year. Based on how much we’ve loved the previous French farces, this was not a hard sell. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that I spent nearly the entire show laughing out loud and watching as the Boy also guffawed nearly continuously. So if you like to laugh, if you love good theater, and you have an hour and a half (a breeze for any production) to spare, make your way to DC and prepare to enjoy yourself.