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The School for Lies — Villanova Theatre

Lies interior alternative In litigious Paris of 1666, an errant word, a just but insulting criticism, or any hint of gossip, even verifiable gossip, can land an unlucky person in court for slander, the fine being a hefty 100,000 francs. Fortunes and social status are gleefully ruined by the members of the fashionable set who are prone to suit and eager to see even people they call friends cringing at the prospect of being cited and fined. Never mind that most of the fops and harridans deserve the unkind words to which they so strenuously object. The game in “The School for Lies,” David Ives’s free adaptation of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” is for the vain, petty, and jealous to make others pay for the slightest calumny or unappreciated response.

Pity then Frank, a Frenchman who has been away from Paris and living abroad, most immediately in England. Living up to his Anglicized name, he does not know how to dissemble. Candor is his habit, honesty his pride. He cannot abide the polite manners that keep everyone civil and on good terms. He hears people constantly lying or being diplomatic to the point they may as well be lying, and he is nauseated. What’s worse is he says so to anyone within his hearing. He cannot be smooth like his friend, Philinte, and go along with even the greatest fool and poseur for the sake of social graciousness and peace. He cannot even be droll or sarcastic in a way that will barely be noticed by the self-important who won’t stop their prattling long enough to realize they’ve been disparaged. Frank, or Franҫois, as the Parisians prefer to call him, is so uncontrolled in his disapproval and railing against the mendacity and backbiting around him, he is destined for adjudication and a judgment against him.

In Ives’s play, at Villanova’s Vasey Theatre through February 23, Frank crosses the border into the obnoxious. More than Moliere, whose Alceste is plain-spoken and disdainful but a bit removed from the people of whom he so disapproves, Ives has Frank mowing the false-hearted down like so many bowling pins in an alley ripe for his sharp reproofs,unalloyed criticism, and undisguised disgust. While in both Moliere and Ives, one is meant to think the lead character goes too far and want him to temper his acid comments a bit, Ives send Frank over the top. He stops being a gentleman who insists on practicing truth and honesty and begins to be a boor.

That doesn’t keep him from being likeable, especially as played in high pitch by Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall. It does prevent him from being totally laudable. Frank is so tactless, he can be as petty as the people he’s complaining about or upbraiding. It’s one thing for him to listen to some sentimental doggerel meant to pass as poetic tribute to love and expose it for the drivel it is, probable lawsuit or not. It’s another for him to pick fights or mock when silence or walking out of the room would do. But then, as I usually say to people who find easy solutions for dramatic situations, what would happen to the play?

Frank’s conundrum is his attraction to a leader of the social set, Celimene, a woman who is a quick-tongued mimic that can flatter someone to his or her face, then, upon their departure, send an entire room into gales of laughter by doing a dead-on imitation of their posturing and verbal lapses. Ives writes a particularly good passage in which Celimene mocks a woman with the irritating modern habit of saying “like” before every other word by babbling about 20 “likes” in a row, keeping the beat of Ives’s rhyming couplets, of course. (One of Ives’s advantages in adapting a play from 1666 is he can comment on the foibles and expression that gall us 350 years later.)

As Schmitt-Hall does with Frank, Victoria Rose Bonito plays Celimene like a whirlwind. Bonito conveys energy as much as wit and establishes Celimene not only as the center of her particular circle but the romantic interest of most of the men it in, including Frank. Ironically her best moments occur when she slows down a bit, when she’s doing Celimene’s imitations or being sincere about Celimene’s late husband, named Alceste in homage to Moliere’s misanthrope.

Ives provides a fine trio of fops to vie for Celimene’s hand, and “School for Lies” director, Kathryn MacMillan,  has them all performing in a way that makes each of their characters distinct while showing that they conform to certain strictures of fashion, wigs, and manners. These three are natural foils to Frank, although one is as honest, if not more honest, as he is. They also provide amusement for Celimene until their intentions grow serious. Celimene, although she leads a gay and eventful life — “gay” in its traditional sense, which I long to restore; it’s such a useful word — remains in mourning for her husband, the only man she believes she is meant to love.

The actors playing these roles are all excellent. Flashiest of the group is Oronte, a poet and a lawyer who wants to woo Celimene with his verse and be her cavalier by defending her  as she fight a potentially ruinous slander suit in court. Chris Monaco, decked out with an unflattering mole on his nose, gives Oronte self-righteous hauteur. This is a man in love with himself and unable to see why everyone else does not feel the same way about him. Monaco plays Oronte’s pride like it was a badge. He struts with purpose. He waits after each alleged bon mot to savor the reaction, favorable from the more politic members of Celimene’s set, scornful from Frank. Oronte is quick to be offended and seek redress from the court where he is well connected. Monaco does a fine job with the role.

While Oronte believes poetry, and a nifty piece of jewelry, will win fair maid, Clitander, who is just as often called Monsieur Clitoris in a joke Ives wears out after the second use,  is certain his wealth and upright boulevard manners will carry the day. Peter Andrew Danzig endow Clitander with a dash of romance but a bigger serving of pomp. Danzig also bristles well when Ives trots out the soon-to-get-tired clitoris gambit.

The finest and most polished performance in Villanova’s “School for Lies” is given by Brendan Maxwell Farrell as the third suitor, the noble and well-heeled Acaste who takes great pleasure in admitting he is a simpleton who was lucky enough to be born into a family that provided enough money that he doesn’t have to strain his limited intellect by practicing a profession.

Farrell ‘s timing and approach to Ives’s rhymes should be a model for the rest of McMillan’s cast. He makes the speeches sound conversational. His cadence is natural, his tone in a normal speaking range. He has conquered the speed and overinflection evident is most of his castmates’ speech. Not that anyone is strident, annoying,  or inept with Ives’s heightened language. Farrell and Meghan Winch, who plays Eliante, are just more graceful and normal-sounding in their presentation.

Farrell’s mastering of couplets is not his only gift. He also has a set of smiles and other expressions that show the blithe happiness Acaste enjoys in his ignorance. Acaste is not exactly proud of being dim. He is just willing to own up to it. He takes his mental deficiencies in his stride. They are something to laugh about and shrug off, particularly because they don’t get much in the way of his having a grand life among Celimene’s set. Even Frank doesn’t have much issue with Acaste. He’s too open to cause objection, and Farrell endows him with winning congeniality and charm. Acaste may not be a great wit, but Farrell’s portrayal of him is witty in a way all can admire and that adds to the fun of McMillan’s production. Acaste may be the smallest part, and be the least important character in “The School for Lies,” but Farrell makes him a delight. I missed him when he wasn’t on stage. His performance is that merry and that perfect.

Farrell and Winch are elegant in their approach. No matter how much Acaste flaunts his stupidity or Eliante goes to romantic extremes, they exude a classic style that elevates and illuminates their material. Their speeches are paced and pronounced with precision. Neither wastes an opportunity to capitalize on the material and staging Ives and McMillan provide. Everyone in the “School for Wives” cast does something to make his or her performance entertaining. Farrell and Winch capture the essence of Moliere, the spirit of the period in which their characters live and of the poetry they are given to speak. Best of all, they work their magic while remaining an integral part of the production, their tone and expression matching the high comic veneer McMillan chose and insuring extra laughs and enjoyment.

McMillan’s entire production of “The School for Lies” is breezy. Ives’s adaptation is witty and saucy, and McMillan has her troupe keep pace with it, the brightness of Jerrold Forsyth’s lighting design being in perfect key with the bright, chattery way Ives’s couplets are delivered.

The pace leaves room for the comedy to breathe. Both Moliere and Ives are capable of repartee, ripostes, and retorts of the highest style, and while McMillan’s show is brisk, it doesn’t race past Ives’s jokes or the lines that reveal who each character is. The production has the air of a farce. The characters represent types within a society, although each actor in the Villanova cast takes pains to individuate his or her role and provide the character he or she plays with distinctive personal traits.

At times, I thought the production needed to slow down a tad, to relax in order to give a bit or a line more chance to have an extra moment of attention. I  think of “The Misanthrope” as a serious comedy in which characters must play as much for sincerity as they do for effect. While I have no objection to any performance and think the Villanova cast fleshed out their characters, some thematic ideas, if not jokes, are lost in McMillan’s fast approach. A pointed indictment of frivolous fashion-oriented society would be one example. The danger of being too accepting of dolts and scandalmongers in the name of social politeness is another. These concepts are present in Ives’s script and can be gleaned by the audience in the course of McMillan’s production, but they get no special emphasis and no opportunity to escalate “The School for Lies” above a jaunty farce or comedy of manners. Not that those entertaining categories of theater are not enough to provide and audience with a good time. McMillan’s “School for Lies” is vivacious and animated. I am just saying it could be richer in some ways.

In adapting “The Misanthrope,” Ives made choices that make “The School for Lies” a slightly different play. While Moliere makes Philinte and Eliante the reasonable characters who know how to walk the fine line between diplomacy and deception, you can tell he agrees with Alceste, or in Ives’s play, Frank, about the shallow duplicity and unearned self-congratulation of segments of society. Ives is more ambivalent. He has Philinte become one of the great professors of lying even while keeping him someone who tries to ground Frank and soften his candor, especially among people who won’t take Frank’s pleas to be honest to heart anyhow. This gives new shades to both characters. Philinte is not as stalwart or pure. Frank can be irritating even when he’s justified in his contempt.

Cavils aside, I had constant fun watching “The School for Lies” and thought  both Moliere’s and Ives’s major points come to the fore often enough, emphasized or not. Ives is clever about the contemporary targets he chooses, as with the woman who augments everything she says with a dozen “likes.” It is sobering to think that the foibles Moliere spotted and commented upon in the 17th century remain prevalent enough for Ives to lampoon in the 21st.

Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall is about as rambunctious a railer as you’ll find. His Frank tears into his victims. Schmitt-Hall doesn’t stoop to sneering or any other indication of his disdain for the company Celimene keeps. He hold his counsel, hears what he regards as poppycock, and tells people how vain, pompous, untalented, hypocritical, or deluded they are.

Schmitt-Hall portrays a character strong in his resolve not to tolerate the artificialities or inanities of what passes for high society. He has a purpose for coming to Celimene’s faubourg, but he doesn’t let his intention blind him to the meanness or silliness of the other folks who share it.

Schmitt-Hall booms disapproval. He scolds Philinte for pretending to enjoy the company he finds at Celimene’s and tells him he is wary of being called a friend by someone who seems to confer that status on any nincompoop who stands before him. (A little Facebook commentary there, I think.)  Frank is a juggernaut, a force let loose to chastise, rebuff, insult, and wish he was elsewhere. Schmitt-Hall plays that fury. As I said earlier, you almost feel sorry for the fools Frank dresses down because he is in such a rage and is so vituperative as he does it.  They are not accustomed to being anything but accepted. Even the level-headed Eliante is kind to them. Schmitt-Hall’s Frank represents a maverick in their midst and, as either Philinte or Celimene mentions, he behaves like a bull in china shop, so Frank is not always the best example of an alternative to Oronte, Clitander, and Acaste. They are, at least, usually pleasant. Frank is always in a temper, always poised to judge, and always ready to hand down a verdict of disappointment.

Schmitt-Hall plays the character as written, and he entertains. I would have liked to have seen more facets to Frank, more signs he could show people how a man who values and practices probity acts.

Victoria Rose Bonito grows into Celimene as “School for Lies” progresses. At first you wonder what about Celimene attracts Frank. Although she is cleverer and more aware of her pose than her hangers-on, she is every bit as cruel and unfriendlike behind their backs. More than any of the fops, Celimene symbolizes how Paris society operates. She is one of its lights. Bonito, while she shows Celimene’s wit, doesn’t show her grace or superiority. Monaco, as Oronte, or Farrell, as Acaste, walk as daintily. Mitchell Bloom, as Philinte, has more poise and better deportment. Bonito’s Celimene has charm, but she does not convey class or anything that makes her special. She remains a part of her set when she needs to at least indicate she is above it and that she entertains Oronte and company because they are the people at hand, and she doesn’t want to be isolated or lonely. Bonito’s Celimene revels in the backbiting, enjoys her talent for mocking, and gets pleasure from the approval of her friends. All of this is an important part of her character, but she must also have a physical way of conveying that she is better than her set. Not out of snobbery but because she is more cultured. She enjoys reading with Eliante, her cousin, when they are alone in the evening and harbors a love of a kind her confreres are incapable of experiencing. We need to see more of Celimene being special. Otherwise why is Frank drawn to her considering she is little different in behavior from anyone else?

Bonito, like Schmitt-Hall, is quick and loud with her lines. She is adept at delivering Ives’s couplets and has a sure knack for knowing when a line needs more air or more emphasis, but she doesn’t sound as conversational as Farrell or Winch.

In the second act of “The School for Lies,” Bonito’s performance deepens. Because she also has a eye for Frank, her Celimene  begins to take matters more seriously. Even when Celimene learns Frank is  not all she was informed he was, Bonito plays with an extra note of maturity, an air that maybe it’s time to end the game of being ostentatiously social and consider a love to follow her departed Alceste.

Bonito is especially entertaining in the segments in which Celimene mimics others, including Frank, who in one of his dithers, insists Celimene skewer him in the same manner she is making fun of others. As in “Red Herring” at Villanova earlier this season, Bonito is effective and affecting when a sequence turns quiet and sincere. She is staunch and heartbreaking in a scene in which she has to defend herself in front of people she respects, Frank and Eliante. She makes you care about Celimene and truly like her when she speaks of the loves she retains for her late husband, ,lost at sea, and how that prevents her from romance with another and gives her license of sorts to be a flibbertigibbet.

At all times, Bonito dominates the stage as Celimene. I may want her presence to be more elegant, but Bonito definitely leads the scenes in which she is a part.

Meghan Winch is a bit of a wild card as Eliante. At first you think she is going to be like the character Celeste Holm played in so many movies, the perceptive, reliable woman who leads situations to reasonable conclusions but never gets a guy in the end.

Eliante is the raisonneuse of “School for Lies.” She is the one who sees through all the phoniness in society but chooses to keep her distance and hold her tongue rather than excoriate everyone hither and yon as Frank does.

Winch does a great job at conveying Eliante’s primness and decorum. She also shows what a tiger Eliante can be when having her love for a particular man requited. Winch knows how to be sensible and demure while also having the ability to become unbridled, a woman who is going to get the most of a sexual interlude.

As mentioned before, Winch is natural in portraying all of Eliante’s characteristics. Her line readings are exceptional. Her ability to go from schoolmarm of sorts to avid lover shows a great range, especially since you always believe Eliante is much a woman of passion and she is a woman of taste and propriety.

As Ives writes the part of Philinte, Mitchell Bloom has one the more difficult parts in “The School for Lies.” Philinte is meant to be Eliante’s male counterpart, the most sensible and discerning character in the play, the one who does everything in the right proportion and from the right perspective. It is Philinte who first tries to educate Frank about the alacrity with which Parisians take each other to court and who attempts to train him to withhold his temper and ignore the nonsense around him.

Philinte is Moliere’s raisonneur. Ives makes Philinte a multi-purpose dude who fulfills Moliere’s intention at first, but then sets a scheme built on a lie in motion. Ives also plays romantic roulette with Philinte. He and another character are a logical pair, but Ives puts complications in the way that keeps Philinte’s course of true love from running smooth. More out of left field that anything, Ives’s script plants a rumor about Philinte, one that may have more substance to it than idle gossip.

Miraculously, the contrapuntal functions Ives assigns to Philinte fit together. Part of the reason is Bloom makes Philinte so versatile. He endows him with an amused quality that lets Philinte say, “What the hell,” and go with whatever gambit seems right for the moment. Because of Bloom’s ease, you see no contradiction in Philinte, even when he perpetrates the most dangerous fraud of anyone.

Bloom rises to all occasions. Like Farrell and Winch, he speaks his lines with a natural felicity. Philinte is a sounding board for much Frank, Celimente, and the three fops have to say. Bloom takes each scene is turn. There’s no way to make Philinte consistent in Ives’s script, so Bloom makes him consistent in the way he reacts. He is always a patient listener and conciliatory  friend. Philinte comforts other characters. He’s the one who makes things as all right as he can manage and hold the fragile balance of Celimene’s salon from going awry.

The rumor about Philinte leads to some wonderful scenes in which Bloom plays out the fantasy he is reputed to indulge in on a regular basis. I am not shy about writing spoilers, but Bloom’s bit gives him a chance to show what genuine elegance and poise are. He not only stuns in the splendid costume Janus Stefanowics creates for him, he uses the position in which Philinte finds himself to make a difference in his true friends’ lives, and his own.

Julie George-Carlson, in a Stefanowicz outfit that looks like a 17th century Chanel, brings out all of the cunning in the instigating Arsinoë. John K. Baxter is hilarious as both Celimene’s butler and Frank’s servant. In the first role, he has bit that involves canapes, hors d’oeuvres, and a silver tray. At first, I thought McMillan was overworking a bit into a gimmick. A payoff at the first act curtain makes all the build-up worthwhile. Before that payoff, Baxter is inventive in how he handles the repetition of the stage business. The actor is also a bit of a chameleon. As Dubois, Celimene’s butler, he looks lumpen and haggard and as if he’s tipped into the wine cellar on a few occasions. As Basque, Frank’s man, he looks like a lanky rascal, Baxter’s entire posture and demeanor changing to the point it took a couple of scenes before I realized he was playing a dual role.

Baxter is quite comfortable as Dubois who makes himself at home in Celimene’s house. One funny scene has Dubois in an armchair casually reading a newspaper while all kinds of business are going on his mistress’s drawing room. Baxter and McMillan are both to be congratulated for making that sequence work so well.

A parlor in 17th century France calls for high style, and set designer Thom Weaver provides it with a spare assortment of chairs, daybeds, lounges, and benches that look sumptuous in the handsome fabric he chose for their upholstery. The salon looks sophisticated, tasteful, and lively, just as you would expect from Celimene.  A pair of eyes, one full, one partial, painted on the doors to Celimene’s drawing room are intriguing. I’m still rattling my brain to think of what they symbolize, and will probably feel like an idiot when I find out, but I thought they added a scooch of fun to the room. (Maybe it’s the eyes of society looking in on Celimene’s salon or Moliere spying to see what David Ives did to his play.)

If Weaver can have a field day, think of the fun Janus Stefanowicz can have with those period costumes. All of the gowns for the women and ensembles for the men showed wit and combined fashionable taste with some comic flair. The women were all dressed in a shade of blue. I mentioned the modern chic within Stefanowicz’s dress for Arsinoë. Her gown for Celimene was perfect. It was stylishly elegant enough to suit Celimene’s station while relatively unadorned in a way that would make it fitting and comfortable to be worn at home. The clothes for the fops each had a flourish. I especially liked the little skirt-like fabric that was part of Oronte’s costume.

Stefanowicz’s piéce de resistance is a gown she makes for Queen Maria Theresa. It is not only smashing but it’s worn with insouciant ease by a character who turns positively regal when donning it.

“The School for Lies” runs through Sunday, February 23 at the Vasey Theatre at Villanova, Lancaster Pike and Ithan Road, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets can be obtained by calling 610-519-7474 or going online to www.theatre.villanova.edu.

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