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I think of all the stunt pastries. There’s a running gag in The School For Lies, Constellation Theatre Company’s agreeably frenetic farce, where every time Matthew Pauli’s beleaguered servant offers his constituency of idle but immaculately dressed Parisians a snack, someone swats the tray from his hand, sending canapes flying. I assumed they were all rubber, given the waste involved in sacrificing a few dozen pastries for each performance — and the way some of them appear to bounce. Then Pauli bites into one of them, the cherry on top of the joke.
The show is Venus in Fur playwright David Ives’ loose-in-faithfulness, watertight-in-rhyme 2011 rewrite of Molière’s 350-year-old comedy The Misanthrope.
The convoluted plot has to do with the new-in-town Frank (Drew Kopas) being sued by the foppish Oronte (Jacob Yeh) after Frank, living up to his name, insults the love poetry Oronte has written in an attempt to woo the widowed Celimene (Natalie Cutcher).
At least that’s where it starts. As is often the case with farce, the way the story quickly becomes knotted up like a stubborn shoelace is part of the fun. The narrative is secondary, tertiary, or, I daresay, quaternary to the production’s more substantial rewards: Cutcher and Kopas’ dextrous handling of Ives’ tongue-twisting rhymes, Frank Labovitz’s flamboyant pastel costumes, Sarah Reed’s Italianate set.
Celimene’s various suitors are distinct and amusing: Jamil Joseph’s Clitander, an opportunistic lawyer whose name gets mispronounced in predictable ways; Ryan Sellers’ Acaste, a superbly dressed (even for this crowd) layabout who readily proclaims himself an idiot—hardly an impediment to man of his era and station; Gwen Grastorf’s Arsinoë, a Kenneth Starr-style influential prude who seems paradoxically interested in seducing Frank, or at least in ensuring Celimene doesn’t get him. Again, Ives has largely thrown out Molière’s insight into human frailty, replacing it with the incongruous, ongoing joke of folding bits of contemporary language into ornate verse. This gives even the most scatological of jokes—of which there are a few—a sense of refinement, which could be its own way of pointing out that people are just animals with delusions of grandeur, an attitude Frank and Alceste—his 17th-century ancestor from Molière’s original text—certainly share.
Director Allison Arkell Stockman, who founded Constellation and established its long residency at the Source Theatre with a production of Caryl Churchill’s rewrite of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play 16 years ago, certainly relishes these sorts of cultural and temporal mash-ups. She sustains a buoyant comic tone through sheer velocity. Constellation has sought out large ensemble pieces, but the demands of Ives’ verse raise the degree of difficulty here substantially, and Stockman’s company of ringers rise to the challenge. It all ends just when you’re ready for it to, with a clever swipe at the kinds of comedies that predated Molière’s by half a century or so. It’s everything you could want from this sort of show, with the possible exception of a canape.
Constellation Theatre Company’s The School For Lies, written by David Ives, inspired by Molière’s The Misanthrope, and directed by Allison Arkell Stockman runs through May 28 at Source Theatre. constellationtheatre.org. $20–$45.