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David Ives brings a classic play to the present
A man who fabricates stories, who can't keep himself from lying, who is unrepentant when his on-the-fly fictions are exposed, who lives in an alternate reality?
Ripped from the headlines?
No, it's the 17th-century French comedy Le Menteur by Pierre Corneille. And now, under the deft hand of playwright-adapter David Ives, it's been reconceived as The Liar, playing at Classic Stage Company through February 26.
Hearing about this show, it's hard not to think about our current president. As Ives notes, "[director] Michael Kahn says that this play is suddenly relevant in a way that we never foresaw."
For the playwright, however, comparisons only go so far. "There is so much hatred built into the ego of Donald Trump, and there is no hatred in this character," he says. "He's too much in love with life to do something as mean as stopping immigrants at the border."
He adds that Dorante, the title character, is a charmer without guile. "He is not built around narcissism, but beauty. He's trying to make the world more interesting."
When Kahn first approached Ives to write the adaptation for a 2009 production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., neither the playwright nor anyone he knew had ever heard of the play. But when he sat down to read it, he immediately responded to its joie de vivre.
"It's very sparkly in French, and it just trips along," he says. "And it has these extraordinary baroque [spoken] arias which I love. But what I also love is the play's freedom from morality because [Dorante] never gets his comeuppance. Everyone else, of course, has to live with the consequences, and yet it all ends up well for everybody."
Because Doronte (who is played by Carson Elrod) is always able to escape from his entanglements, mix-ups, and whoppers, Ives adds, "it kind of has a festival feeling to it, where you're in this world where everything is possible. He's about joy."
Fans of French drama may also note that Corneille's play has something in common with the works of Molière, which are filled with satirical jabs at hypocrites and cheats. However, Ives says he prefer this play. "It has more real life to it. Corneille was an approver, and Molière was a disapprover. I like playwrights who are approvers, or who at least fall on that side. This play is full of exuberance."
As much as he enjoyed it, though, Ives still revised large swaths of the script to make it work for a contemporary audience. An inconsequential ingénue needed more depth, for instance, and an abrupt ending demanded more substance.
"You have to work on these plays as a playwright first," Ives says. "You ask yourself, 'Who are these characters and how do they express themselves?' Because not every character, even though it's in verse, can express themselves in the same way. So I had to substantially rewrite Corneille."
He always knew, however, that he would retain the original's use of rhyming verse. "If it was in prose, it would be a sitcom. It would be banal."
Verse, he adds, elevates and enlivens the show. "One of the great things about verse – and why everything should be in verse: plays, recipes from The New York Time – is that it expands what people can say and how they express themselves. In a verse play people can speak in images in a way that they can't in a David Mamet play. And everything trips along a little more."
When Ives creates an especially fine bon mot – when he feels he's really captured the spirit of the original work while giving the humor a modern twist – he admits to feeling a special Gallic glow. A case in point: A character woos a woman by saying, "You may be a bi-valve, but you're my valve."
"I must say I was very pleased with myself for that," he says. "You hand yourself a little truffle, or you have an extra drink that night as a reward."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available to 'The Liar.' Go here to browse our current offers.
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Photos by Richard Termine. Top photo (L to R): Tony Roach, Christian Conn, and Carson Elrod.