Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: David Ives

The playwright ponders ... Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Review | The Liar | By David Ives | Adapted from Corneille’s play Le Menteur | Directed by Michael Kahn | Classic Stage Company

… bold brilliance …

This play is for everybody who loves words, word play, unexpected puns and rhymes of an unbound imagination.  It’s hilarious –and expands one’s sense of the English language.

People like to make a distinction between “plot driven” stories and “character driven” stories – this adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s play by David Ives is “word driven.”  If you’re going to enjoy it, it will be because you love the fancies words can spin, the hilarities they can spring on you, and above all the deep down satisfying pleasure of big warm laughs, one after the other.

The playwright ponders ... Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The playwright ponders … Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Corneille, whose life spanned most of the 17th century, is the father of both the great tradition of French tragedy and comedy.  For Voltaire, Corneille had shown that the French language could be a medium for great art, as Homer had done for ancient Greek, though subsequently Voltaire altered his views.  Le Menteur premiered in 1644,  Meet the big liar, Dorante, who starts us off by boasting of his military career in order to impress two women he meets in the Tuilleries in Paris.  The women – conveniently for farce – have names that sound alike, Clarice and Lucrece.  Even Dorante is mixed up about which is which.

What follows are mistaken identities and amusing confusions.  Dorante, thinking that he prefers Lucrece (no, he really prefers Clarice), initiates the lie that he is already married in order to avoid marrying Clarice – a lie that, as the truth snaps at his heels, he spins into ever more complicated twists and turns, the riotous inventions of a genius liar.  Clarice is engaged – secretly of course – to someone else, duels are arranged, the butler is involved with … as said, the plot is not so much the heart of the matter as the humor.

Michael Kahn has directed an able cast, with Christian Conn as Dorante, Ismenia Mendes as Clarice, Amelia Pedlow as Lucrece, and others who share their perfect timing to fill out the humor.  I particularly loved Carson Elrod as Dorante’s bumpkin butler — naive but he learns fast.

This is the third of David Ives’ adaptations* that have appeared at Classic Stage:  the others are The Heir Apparent, adapted from Jean-Francois Regnard’s Le Legataire universel, seen at Classic Stage in 2014, and The School for Lies, adapted from Molière’s The Misanthrope in 2011.

Taking off from the original plots, David Ives adapts with his particularly liberated and fanciful language so that they are truly new creations, ones that in their way put us in closer touch with the spirit of the original plays, and the gaiety they brought to seventeenth-century theater-goers, than a more “faithful” translation could give.  Through Ives’ bold brilliance, we share the joy inherent in these wonderful comedies.  I count it as one of the great good fortunes to live within range of that theater treasure — Classic Stage Company – and to have seen these plays.

Of the three, The School for Lies, was, well, the funniest – simply over-the-top, unforgettable – one of the rare times I’ve seen a play twice in one run, partly because of Molière’s vivid characters and partly because it featured, among other fine actors, the incomparable Hamish Linklater. But all bear the mark of Ives’ wit, uninhibited imagination, civilized perspective, and joie de vivre.  It’s a privilege to have seen all three of these Ives’ creations.

It’s a privilege to see The Liar.

The Liar plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through February 26, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

* Classic Stage also produced Ives’ profound play about Spinoza, The New Jerusalem, and the  popular play Venus in Fur which opened there before moving to Broadway (as well as two others I haven’t seen).

Review | The Heir Apparent by David Ives | Adapted from Le Légataire Universel by Jean-François Regnard | Directed by John Rando | Classic Stage Company

David Ives does it again — almost.  His earlier adaptation of Moliere’s le Misanthrope (1666), renamed The School for Lies  (reviewed here in 2011) was an orgy of unending laughter.  This adaptation of Regnard’s le Légataire Universel (1708) which he renames The Heir Apparent isn’t as successful although Ives follows his same rules of mod transformation, because Regnard’s play falls short of the brilliance of le Misanthrope.

So what does David Ives “do” with these late sixteenth and early seventeenth century French plays?

He translates them into completely contemporary lingo, without any inhibitions or unnecessary reverence for  “The Past,” unworried about “anachronism,” using contemporary slang and turns of phrase, and in a spectacular rush of imagination invents contemporary in-jokes in place of  the in-jokes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that today would seem like out-jokes, or be missed.  He’s tremendously witty!  Meanwhile, he holds to the past in the costumes and, with titillating ambiguity, in the decor, and for the plot maintains the rules, regulations, customs and laws of the 16th and 17th centuries, all of which, coming up against the contemporary language and modern references, create a delicious cognitive dissonance.

Thanks to David Ives, these plays come to us more themselves than they would be in literal word-for-word translations.  They’re as good as they were in their own day which in the case of Moliere means marvelous, less so for Regnard.

Jean-François’ Regnard was a reigning comic playwright of the Comédie-Français after Moliere; this is his best known work.  The situation is that  a rich old man, Geronte, appears to be dying and his poor nephew, Eraste, is angling for his fortune, which will enable him to marry the beautiful Isabelle.  Obstacles arise for Eraste including the varied set of characters seeking the dying man’s fortune who appear and, in some amusing scenes, claim in one preposterous way or another to be long lost relatives.

The biggest obstacle of all is that the tough old geezer, much as he seems on his last legs, simply doesn’t die.  Crispin the servant, facilitator to the core, invents clever schemes to help Eraste whose own inability to do anything for himself makes him a less than sympathetic character as a lover, which I found a weakness in the play.  Who cares if this jerk gets the girl or not?

Much of the early part of the play (at least it seemed to go on a long time) centers around old man Geronte’s problems with his plumbing: there’s lots of tiresome scatological joking and horsing around.  Instead of an amusingly extreme aspect of character (such as one would find in Moliere), we’re stuck with Geronte’s extreme digestive problems, but Paxton Whitehead, abandoning any vestige of narcissism, gives his all to the rather repulsive role and, when called for, produces an impressive of physical transformation.  By the end of the play, the characters’ situations have changed but — in contrast to le Misanthrope — they haven’t learned much.

The most interesting character is Scruple — the short lawyer of briefs — acted by David Pittu who plays it like José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1952 John Huston film, The Moulin Rouge — on his knees.  He’s also responsible for the most hilarious scene in which the attorney, a true professional, is drawing up his client’s will while oblivious to false identities — always good for laughs, and Pittu’s intelligent but obtuse sober mien adds to the fun.

Carson Elrod is energetic and amusing as Crispin, the man of many devices and “a whole comédie-française in himself.” Suzanne Bertsch is appropriately imperious as Isabelle’s mother.

See The Heir Apparent and you’ll enjoy it, but you don’t “have to see” it the way I felt you “had” to see The School for Lies.  (I saw it twice just so somebody else who’d miss it otherwise could see it once.)

The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage Company in New York City’s East Village through May 4th, 2014.

Review | The School For Lies by David Ives | Directed by Walter Bobbie | Classic Stage Company

… triple play …

What a romp!  What sheer fun!  Moliere would have loved The School For Lies.

And what a record, three for three, for Classic Stage and David Ives:

  • 2009:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ brilliant play about Spinoza,  New Jerusalem:  The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
  • 2010:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ Venus in Fur which was a big success and launched Nina Arianda into stardom (though I found it tiresome)
  • 2011:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and they’re right back on brilliant

The School for Lies roughly follows Moliere’s The Misanthrope with Ives translating it into the words, rhythms, and catch-all phrases of today’s youth-slanted English — and these are very young characters.  He’s discovered complete freedom of vocabulary — no word for word translation but every attempt, and success, at catching the sense of each line, its feeling, the characters’ pleasure in saying it and the impact on the hearer.

The effect in its way is pure Moliere.  Ives bridges the 17th to 21st Centuries!

And, though perhaps less inventive, Ives is as witty as Moliere!  Like The Misanthrope, The School for Lies is in rhyme — rhyming couplets, strings of internal rhymes, can-you-top-this? rhymes, punning rhymes, delayed rhymes that you wait for and that never disappoint on arrival — bringing a grin, a chortle, a guffaw, and a sigh of satisfaction.

We’re in Paris among aristocrats in the 17th Century.  Well, we’re sort of there:  the furnishings are of the time, and the characters wear gorgeous period costumes  but they talk like us.  Celimene is a spirited, witty recent widow and a flirt who loves society.  Frank is an impulsive, sarcastic brooder, disdainful of humanity and its superficial social conventions — hugs in particular.  He’s sort of a hippie, she’s a party girl, and yet they love, sparring like Annie and Frank in Annie Get Your Gun.   The play abounds with rich characters, Philante, Frank’s friend with the “be reasonable, Frank” message who turns into a Queen ex machina;  Clitander (fun and names) super rich and content with his stupidity;  Oronte, whose dreadful poetry bears the brunt of Frank being frank, and others to entangle themselves in each others’ lies and loves.

This is a cast with great comic timing and marvelous expressions — subtle and broad as needed — Jenn Gambatese is particularly amusing as Elainte who loves … well, everybody here loves a few different people.  The tall, tousled Hamish Linklater gives a vigorous and always humorous performance and he’s handsome so that we can believe Celimene falls in love with him against her better judgment.  Mamie Gummer is persuasive as Celimene though the role could use more sparkle.  Everybody’s good but I’d particularly mention Steven Boyer whose long-suffering deadpan in the role of two servants holds the play together — you’d think that particularl joke that goes along with him might be overdone, but it works every time.

I’ve seen The Misanthrope at the Pearl Theatre recently which prompts comparison:  the stories and characters are similar but the differences are interesting — though I was so captivated by The School for Lies that these took awhile to sink in.  In The School for Lies, the hero, Frank, speaks of his hatred of hypocrisy.  In The Misanthrope,  the parallel hero, Alceste, hates hypocrisy and injustice.  And therein lies a tale.  The School for Lies is focused on individuals, on the foibles of this group and the hilarity they engender.  Injustice looms larger in The Misanthrope where, for all the laughter, one is always aware of the great power imbalances of the social structure and the insecurities they cause.  All in all, The School for Lies is a less political play than The Misanthrope.  In a way this is surprising, since Moliere, living and writing under the tight reign of Louis XIV, had two of his plays banned by the government, while Ives has nothing to lose.

(And those court cases often referred to are totally unclear to me in both plays.)

And Moliere’s play, for all of its exaggerated characterizations, is more realistic in terms of personalities and relationships, particularly in the more complex, anguished and genuinely philosophical character of Alceste, now Frank in The School for Lies.  And speaking of realism, Frank impossibly turns out to be someone else — but it’s so wonderfully funny you wouldn’t want it any other way.  These aspects give Moliere’s play the universality that inspires interpretations, adaptations, performances and other kinds of conversations with it in new generations — like The School for Lies.  But The School for Lies has its own great wit and language.

The School for Lies plays at Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village through May 22;  that’s too short a run for such an enjoyable play!

Review | Venus in Fur by David Ives | Directed by Walter Bobbie | With Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley | Classic Stage Company

… SM …

The Marquis de Sade died in 1814, which left over half a century for sadism to languish alone until masochism “arrived” in the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs — the author’s name, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, providing the word.

Ives’ play Venus in Fur roughly follows the extreme SM relationship between the man and woman in the novel, which allows for plenty of sadism, masochism, and a beautiful woman in Victoria’s Secret type of lingerie tempting and teasing a man.  Voyeurism, sexual revelation, sanctified by touches of social history and the “serious” overtones of a “classic novel” — you can see why someone thought this would be a good play to produce.  The play’s repetitive quality and predictability, and — a casting problem — a total lack of chemistry between the actors playing the man and woman, make it boring.

A young writer has spent the day auditioning women for his first play.  That he instead of the director is holding the auditions introduces a sense of authorial fantasy.  He’s closing up shop when a pushy blond woman thrust herself into his grungy office and insists on reading for the part.  Thomas is impatient, wants to get home to his girlfriend but Vanda won’t take no for an answer.  She’s not on the list for readings — her agent’s error, she insists (though it enhances the “is it real?” sense), and keeps talking.  Eventually she badgers him into letting her read for the part while making him read the male character’s lines.

From her first lines, she’s transformed from a street-wise, ordinary girl with a New York accent to the upper class 19th century countess she’s portraying.  She insists that he not merely mouth his lines but really play the part, thus enmeshing him in the archetypal slave and master relationship, with him the slave, that he’s written into the play and, through that, the “real” one with her.  They switch back and forth between play acting and being real, between their ordinary personae and the high class SM characters he’s written into his play;  with each switch, their power dynamic takes a further step toward reversal.   At the start, he’s in charge, auditioning, choosing:  by the end, victim and victor have changed places, and sexes.

In its criss-crossing of power arcs, Venus in Fur recalls Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) Dutchman of 1964, seen in a recent revival at the Cherry Lane Theater, but whereas in Dutchman, in a similarly locked space, Blacks rise from victims to victors, here it’s the politics of feminism.

In contrast to the Obie award winning Dutchman, however, Venus in Fur doesn’t crackle and move with devastating speed toward a brilliant and unexpected denouement.  It repeats itself as it lurches toward a predictable ending.  Oh not again, one says to oneself (at least that’s what I said to myself, can’t speak for the rest of the audience) as the tall, shapely, and dramatically strong Nina Arianda once again takes off her street clothes to reveal her sexy black lingerie, or Victorian ruffles, or puts them on again, or off again, or on …   I thought she had a lot of stamina for changing clothes.  So much of this play is what the woman is wearing.  A move to boots could be called the play’s preliminary climax.  Wow!  Black boots.  Sensuality and sexual dynamics are in the line of sight but not in the air.

Venus in Fur plays at Classic Stage, on East 13th Street in NYC, through February 21.

Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur take a close look at Sacher-Masoch's well-thumbed novel. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company

Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur take a close look at Sacher-Masoch’s well-thumbed novel. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company

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