You know, a play about lies (and the lying liars who tell them, in Senator Al Franken's immortal words) cuts a bit close to the bone for us theater critics. We reward the most accomplished liars—those stage artists who best convince us that they are who they are not—as a matter of professional practice. You could say that our job comes down to vetting the best lies in town on any given week—and then recommending them, wholeheartedly, for your consumption.
It is comforting to note that Dorante, the main character in French playwright Pierre Corneille's 17th-century farce THE LIAR (Deep Dish Theater Company), appreciates these subtle nuances as well. At first, actor Roman Pearah's nimble character seems a run-of-the-mill cad—a new-in-town jasper who may have just enough wit to flimflam his way into a lucrative arranged marriage with a local swell's daughter.
But as adapter David Ives unfolds this tangled story, Dorante takes on an existential hue: less Groucho Marx and more Albert Camus. By then, he's spun a tale to the credulous Alcippe (Scott Nagel) of a boating tryst to end all water-borne seductions. When servant Cliton (Matthew Hager) determines it's a lie, Dorante calmly rejoins that "the unimagined life's not worth living."
When Alcippe imagines his fiance as the one seduced, he challenges Dorante to a duel. As he narrates it in real-time, as if it were the Mayweather–Pacquiao prizefight, and then recounts the thrilling blood-and-thunder of an equally spurious shotgun wedding, Dorante hasn't just made his own life a bit more interesting. The truth is, he has done the same for ours.
Under Paul Frellick's deft direction, Pearah's Dorante whistles along some imposing self-erected precipices as he tries to keep Cliton, father Geronte (robust Warren Keyes) and prospective paramours Clarice and Lucrece (glittering Rebecca Bossen and soulful Maryanne Henderson) in the dark on different facets of his life. In their midst, Nagel's cockeyed read on the bellicose Alcippe suggests a refreshing 15th-century take on "Weird Al" Yankovic.
The occasional snag is the iambic pentameter Ives employs throughout. When it works, well over half the time, the practice is theatrical meringue. When the inevitable clunkers land, it's a fallen stage soufflé.
Dorante's improbable second-act credo begins with a tag on Shakespeare: "All the world's a lie, and the men and women merely liars." But instead of using this to confirm some darker truth of human nature, Dorante finds liberation and limitless possibility in it. When all meaning is a mere invention to distract us from the void, the liar "turns to poetry our daily prose ... to dazzle us [and] reweave the tapestry with brilliant colors from his endless spools." In the right hands, Dorante reminds us, a lie can be performance art.
As a culture, we used to know this. The popularity of The Monti and The Moth bids us to remember that our predecessors once regularly held similar contests—called tall-tale competitions and fish-tale festivals—for the best-told lies, instead of truths. Were those practices still commonplace, would we be more or less inoculated against far less beneficial untruths—the ones that have crept into our politics and political reporting?
- Photo by Jonathan Young
- Matthew Hager and Roman Pearah in The Liar
Regional companies very rarely stage the same show in the same season. Since any given stage show has a finite audience, two adjacent runs split that group—and potentially cut their houses in half.
Then there's the unwanted specter of head-to-head competition. For the thoughtful theatergoer, parallel productions let us place two creative teams side by side and assess their differences in artistic vision and execution. But if you're on the marketing and development side of either company, you might not want those comparisons made available, much less inevitable, among the general public.
Temple Theatre closes its 2014/15 season with HAIRSPRAY, the John Waters musical that Raleigh Little Theatre performed in the same season in September. Director Peggy Taphorn and imaginative set designer Steven Harrington don't force an able Emily Hubbard, as central character Tracy Turnblad, to open the show as singlehandedly as the RLT production did last fall. Instead, opening number "Good Morning Baltimore" takes us on a vivid and fully populated whirlwind tour—first of Tracy's teenage bedroom, then the scuzzy sides of her neighborhood walk to school.
Taphorn's kinetic choreography and witty stage composition propel the production through "The Nicest Kids in Town" and "I Can Hear the Bells." As Penny, Tracy's teenage aide de camp, Kelsey Walston is a winning ultra-geek. Through their quest to find fame, romance and civil rights on Baltimore daytime TV in the 1960s, they encounter dragon lady Velma Von Tussle (a convincing Trish Hamilton) and ally Motormouth Maybelle (Rozlyn Sorrell, who chalks up yet another show-stopper in the production's 11 o'clock number, "I Know Where I've Been.")
Stephen Moore seems a bit flat in the traditional drag role of Tracy's mother, Edna, but Ken Griggs helps cement the family unit as Wilbur. In supporting roles, Timothy Houston is probably aging out as teen heartthrob Link, but Robyne Parrish nails the jail matron in "The Big Dollhouse," and Matt Lamb ingratiates as the Dick Clark figure, Corny Collins.
Harrington's sound design left the singers under-amplified against the pre-recorded orchestra through much of Saturday night—the only other major drawback in an otherwise engaging production.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sweet little lies"