It's difficult to consider the current production from Sarasota's FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training without comparing it to a conservatory production from three years ago.
The earlier one was "The School for Lies," an adaptation of classic 17th-century classic comedy by Moliere. The current one is "The Liar," an adaptation of classic 17th-century comedy by Pierre Corneille. David Ives translated and adapted both plays, and he wrote them both entirely in rhyming couplets.
They're both startlingly brilliant achievements in playwriting. Ives, who also wrote "All in the Timing" and "Venus in Fur," is one of the most skilled playwrights in the world, and also one of the funniest.
He wrote "The Liar" first, though, and if you've seen both, you get the feeling that he was earning his wings with this first rhyming play, but that he didn't really soar until the second one.
That's not to say that "The Liar" isn't delightful, though. It's unceasingly clever and very smart. Almost every couplet elicits a chuckle, and a few deliver hearty laughs.
The story, grounded in commedia dell'arte, is so silly that's it's hard to explain, and explaining it might leave the impression that the play is less intellectually satisfying than it truly is.
It's Paris in 1643, and Dorante, who is proud of being a liar (and who believes himself to be quite skilled at lying, despite evidence to the contrary), meets two women who are best friends. Their names are Clarice and Lucrece. He falls in love with one of them, but he gets their names mixed up and courts the wrong one. Meanwhile, his manservant Cliton, who is incapable of lying, falls in love with the servant of one of the two women. That servant has an identical twin who is the servant of the other woman.
But it's just a canvas for Ives to work on. His comedy is relentless, a stream of the humor that ranges from sophomoric, almost scatological jokes (which
he still makes funny), to metatheatrical references. (The fact that the actors are portraying liars, but that they are not actually liars -- that they are essentially lying about being liars -- is something that Ives references at several points.)
The acting challenges are obvious. The actors, who are still students, have to deliver modern dialogue that's constructed in rhyming pentameter, and make it easy to listen to. And they have to be funny while they're doing it. Then, on top of all that, they have a lot of physical comedy that they have to perform impeccably if it's to work at all.
And they do it. The entire cast -- including Scott Kuiper as Dorante, Brandon Maldonado as Cliton, and Kelly Elizabeth Smith, Jessie Taylor and Jillian Courtney as their love interest and faux love interests -- seems comfortable with the demands of the dialogue. They command both the poetry and the comedy of Ives' dialogue.
A lot of the credit for the uniformly excellent performances has to go to director Justin Lucero. But Lucero has also interjected some long stretches of physical comedy that, although well performed, just aren't funny. They're unnecessary distractions from Ives' dialogue.
The only significant fault in the production is a cheap-looking and unattractive set. It's atypical for the conservatory, and the elegance and richness of the costumes by Becki Leigh exacerbate the clumsiness of the set.
But this play, even more than most others, is about the words. And the words are relentlessly witty. Anyone who loves wordplay and who can appreciate brilliant playwriting will love "The Liar."
Details: Through Jan. 17, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $14-$29. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.