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THEATER REVIEW: “The School For Lies”

photos: www.northcoastrep.org/press

You’ve got to love a playwright with the chutzpah to rewrite the classics. And you have to be even more impressed when the result is as scintillating as “Venus In Fur” (based on Sader Masoch’s “Venus In Furs” and seen here last year) or this season’s rollicking “The School For Lies,” playing through March 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

David Ives wrote both. Here he has taken Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” and made it into a bawdy, sexy, hilarious modern romp, without losing its satiric edge or any comedic possibilities ... and without even changing the original 17th-century setting.

On Marty Burnett’s slightly decaying, once-elegant drawing-room set, the brutally candid Frank (Richard Baird) will insult, analyze and badmouth both society as a whole (“nothing but a school for lies”) and anyone within earshot – in pithy rhyming couplets, no less.

Frank finds his verbal sparring counterpart in Celimene (Jessica John), the beautiful if superficial widow whose charms (and hand) are sought by several of the men in her Parisian social circle. Three of these are the terminally stupid but filthy rich Acaste (Jason Heil); Oronte, of the huge facial wart (Phil Johnson), who writes the kind of poetry that rhymes “Phyllis” with “bacillus,” and Clitander (David McBean), whose name keeps getting confused with a part of the female anatomy.

Celimene’s partner in the romance quest is cousin Eliante (Brenda Dodge), beloved of Joel Ripka’s Philinte, a bit of a dandy (or queen – take your choice).

Meanwhile Frank, badmouthing everyone and everything, finds himself loved by both Eliante and Celimene. What better irony than that?

Then there’s tiresome old meddler Arsinoé (Dana Hooley), who never – no, never – passes on negative gossip: “I never gossip,” she says. “I just report.”

Last (but certainly not least), Jonathan McMurtry graces the stage with hilarious portrayals of “twin” servants Dubois (whose running gag with a tray of canapes never ceases to elicit giggles) and Frank’s valet Basque.

Director Andrew Paul, blessed with outstanding assistance from Ives’ terrific script, Burnett’s set, Alina Bokovikova’s fabulous costumes and a top-notch cast, only has to keep the pace moving and create amusing stage pictures. And that he does.

Baird’s big-mouthed bluffer Frank is a hoot to watch, especially as the above-it-all purveyor of insults is humanized in a last-minute plot twist. How could Celimene not love a guy who could say this:

“I can’t explain it. She exalts my soul.
She’s single malt. She’s rain. She’s rock-and-roll.”

Baird’s Frank is a perfect foil for John’s Celimene (looking smashing in Bokovikova’s hot pink number), brought to the realization that superficiality need not be the keystone of her life.

This is a cast and a production to treasure. One caveat: it is risqué, even vulgar – but oh, so funny.

The details

“The School For Lies” plays through March 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.