Chicago Theatre Review
Prime Time Rhymes
The School for Lies – The Artistic Home
Prolific playwright David Ives is primarily known for his darkly erotic two-hander, “Venus in Fur,” a sexual battle between a casting director and a young actress. However, he’s also greatly respected for a large roster of plays that he’s either adapted or translated from their original texts. They include such plays as “The Liar,” “The Heir Apparent” and “A Flea in Her Ear.” In 2011, Ives wrote this R-rated comedy, loosely based upon Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” and currently enjoying a clever, new staging at the Artistic Home.
Written with Ives’ own brand of clever prime time rhymes and verbal gymnastics, the playwright has borrowed a little bit from Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” and melded it with the major plot points and characters of one of Moliere’s most popular plays. While technically not a strict adaptation, Ives has infused his freewheeling version with a raw, often vulgar modern vocabulary, and filled with contemporary allusions that include references to today’s world.
Kudos to Kathy Scambiatterra, the Artistic Director and co-founder of this ever-evolving theatre company, for the skilled guidance with which she’s led this ambitious production. Staged in the round, she’s brought this play to life in the most natural way. Ms. Scambiatterra has been particularly successful in steering her actors toward making Ives’ cloying, singsong rhyming couplets sound delightful, yet as much like natural dialogue as possible. While this broad comedy is inherently over-the-top, and its characters and situations are exaggerated beyond all credibility, this director has worked hard to ground her production in its own special reality.
Set in the 17th century drawing room of attractive, affluent, witty and recently widowed Celimene, the lady of the house is worrying about an impending court case. She welcomes her lovely, young cousin and confidant, Eliante, into her home. Reluctantly, yet courteously, Celimene also entertains her three unctuous, flamboyant suitors, Alcaste, Clitander and Oronte. Philinte, a handsome friend and fashion-conscious dandy, who enjoys hanging out at Celimene’s salon, silently pines for the love of Eliante, although she seems completely unaware of the young man’s passion.
At the top of the play, Philinte welcomes Frank, his new friend, into Celimene’s home. He wants both his friends to meet and get to know each other, however their relationship more resembles the strained, fiery friendship between Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict. Ives has created this new, savagely honest character to replace Moliere’s main character of Alceste, the blunt truth teller of the original play. Frank is a smart, yet coarsely truculent, tactless man who shuns political correctness. He relishes pointing out all the hypocrisy and pretense in everyone around him, especially those representing the French court. Suddenly, into this circus of buffoons, enters Arsinoe, Celimene’s gossipy fake friend who’s out for personal revenge. That’s when the plot begins to thicken.
Filled with wit, clever rhymes, puns, scatological jokes, adult humor, anachronistic references and broad characterizations, this comedy features a talented cast of nine who bring Ives’ bizarre characters and scintillating poetry to life. As Frank, Mark Pracht is strongly masterful and commanding. This chippy, combative man’s man of a character is played with clearly recognizable Chicagoan bias. He’s a guy with his own individual, unique set of values and ideas about society’s hypocrisy. Later on, Pracht’s transformation into a love-stricken lothario is especially funny, given his previous macho persona. In the role of Philinte, handsome Julian Hester is terrific. A master of subtle expression, a talented interpreter of the playwright’s convoluted conversation, Hester is one of the real stars of this production, a treasure trove of Thespian inventiveness and superb comedic timing.
As Celimene, beautiful Annie Hogan, whose talent has been enjoyed at theatres all over Chicago, is impeccable. She offers the style, grace, eloquence and witty repartee necessary to perfectly carry off this leading role. Possibly reminding theatergoers of a young Brooke Shields, Brookelyn Hebert is excellent as cousin Eliante. Whether being demure in her affections, or letting loose with wild abandon, Ms. Hebert is hilarious. Devon Carson is devious and devilish as Arsinoe. Her machinations toward bringing the downfall of Celimene’s character, and stealing away her friend’s new paramour, make this cockroach of character an untrustworthy villain in the tradition of Ursula, the Sea Witch.
Superb technical support for this production can be found in Elyse Balogh’s simple, clever use of space with her intimate scenic design. Festooned by a collection of chandeliers and wall sconces, Balogh’s set is primarily an artistic arrangement of period furniture, the centerpiece being a chest of drawers that serves nicely as a well-stocked bar. Cat Wilson’s lighting seems to employ every lamp in the theatre, nicely illuminating the Louis XIV drawing room, but, unfortunately, generating a great deal of unwanted heat.
The flashiness of Zachary Wagner’s eclectic costumes, however, are the real showpieces of this production. Sometimes they’re authentic to the time period, as in Celimene’s sumptuous scarlet gown; at other times, his frocks are fun and festively anachronistic, as in Philinte’s, Acaste and Clitander’s ensembles of flash and funk. Frank’s highwayman-like wardrobe, consisting of a black leather greatcoat, motorcycle jacket and boots, as well as both costumes for versatile Reid Coker’s two servants, reflect a modern, 21st century feel. Add to these some very inventive wigs, especially Arsinoe’s coif that resembles a gray log, and the visual splendor of this production is complete.
In David Ives’ contemporary adaptation of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” we get a parody of a period comedy, but filled with much topical adult humor. It’s modern, yet also faithful to the style of the best French plays from the mid-1600’s. Written in a relentless, often hilarious iambic pentameter verse, the play sometimes has a Dr. Seuss-like quality to its comedy. All the characters, as well as the situations, are over-the-top and, except for a few swallowed lines here and there, this is a delightfully loquacious, chatty, catty and frivolous way to spend a summer evening in the theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 1-August 13 by The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 866-811-4111 or by going to www.theartistichome.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.