Farce Forward

John Mortimer once said, “Farce is tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.” Author and critic Michael Arditti takes the barrister-turned-playwright’s famous quote one step further by defining the genre thusly:

“The action of a farce is propelled by panic, with characters lying to save face, which compounds their troubles since they now have to deal not only with the original problem but also the lie and hence they behave even more bizarrely.”

My caveat would be, “if it ain’t funny, it ain’t working.”  Lucky for us, farce has found a worthy vessel for fermentation in playwright David Ives, whose Venus In Fur was an astonishing revelation last season. Here Ives distills the narrative into the most exquisite vintage possible, with intoxicating overtones of snark and satire, in his latest venture School for Lies, playing weekends through October 20 at the Las Cruces Community Theatre.

Farce has never been an easy concept to master, though many have tried. Shakespeare did it masterfully. So, too, did Michael Frayn, though they were worlds and centuries apart. There are certainly similarities between the two schools, but the differences between classic and contemporary farce are legion.

Ives ups the ante by combining the two, which is a feat unto itself. In School For Lies, he takes the classic elements of aristocratic satire and disdain – in this case the Misanthrope by French cynic Moliere – and catapults them forward into the post-Marxist contemporary arena of proletarian backbiting. In doing so, he not only retains the relevance of the original, but reveals a new perspective that is altogether neoteric. It’s also a hoot to watch.

Bob Diven, Britney Stout and Brandon Brown recreate 17th century Paris via the 21st century, in David Ives' School For Lies.
Bob Diven, Britney Stout and Brandon Brown recreate 17th century Paris via the 21st century, in David Ives’ School For Lies. Photo by Paul Larkin.

The confection that results from this unorthodox pairing is a revelation by one of the theatre world’s most promising playwrights. Fold in a glittering ensemble of able local thespians, an anachronistic mash-up of Louis XIV haute couture and Bill Gates rag trade and an iambic pentameter colloquy sprinkled liberally with contemporary vulgarian vernacular and you’ve got a rollicking evening of broad farce and dagger-tongued repartee that is delightfully witty and au courant.

The set, though simple, adequately conjures visions of a 17th century salon, without any of the gilt trappings one might desire or expect. Jordan M. Kelley’s costumes defy description with their clever mix of tunic, Tartuffe and tennis shoes, though I would have liked to see a few big, powdered wigs and, perhaps, a bit of grotesque make-up, particularly on the suitors.  But these are mere trifles and lest the players think me too “analytic,” hardly a distraction.

Neither “tinsel,” nor “paste,” not “dull, derivative, pale, pompous” or “trite,” School For Lies suffers little from the epithets uttered by Frank in one of the more enjoyable scenes of the evening, when he takes one of the suitors to task for writing bad poetry. But I’m getting ahead of myself and, though I fear I may find myself falling into the category of sycophant who is “brown well past” my nose, I have nothing but good things to say about this performance.

Honestly, I have not enjoyed an evening of theatre this much in, well, ages. As those who tend to accompany me to these events can contest, it isn’t often that I am heard to belly laugh. I may snicker. I may even guffaw. But laugh out loud? Hardly ever. And yet, there I sat opening night, barking madness at the boards and thoroughly enjoying the freefall feeling of being caught up in the absurd antics of a finely tuned cast, whose love for the language was and is contagious. Colon, mainly because, antics aside, it really is all about the words – idiosyncratic colloquialisms and all.

Slapstick comedy collides with droll witticism in a bizarro world wherein French aristocrats behave like reality show contestants and extreme wordplay is liberally doused with trash talk. Throw in dashes of Commedia Dell’arte – as exemplified by Bob Diven’s haughty effete Oronte and his grotesquely exaggerated mask, which has to be seen to be believed – and the purely 21st century usage of cell phones, iPads and internet slang, the result is a uniquely retrofitted transmogrification. None of which would really work without a stellar cast to make the shenanigans soar.

All flashing eyes, gravity defying cleavage and coquettish grins, Britney Stout commands the stage as the beleagured widow Celimene, reveling in the deliciousness of the character’s womanly charms and serrated tongue. Whether going toe to toe with the dour buzzkill Frank, or riffing on the character traits of toadying bluebloods – with credible side trips to the Jersey Shore and the San Fernando Valley – her comic timing is impeccable.

As counterpoint, Gail Wheeler’s bitter, ascerbic Arsinoe is the perfect foil for Celimene, flouncing across the stage like a haughty Baby Jane in search of her spotlight in a room already dominated by brilliance. Watching these two seasoned actresses chew scenery together is a delight that is seldom paralleled and the fierceness of their verbal duel is a wordsmith’s wet dream. If it’s possible to fall in love with the exquisite poetry of words, as uttered by divas of the first order, I have done so and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Love is fickle, after all, and welcomed in all its many guises.

Brandon Brown's Frank practices the art of the woo with Britney Stout's Celimene.
Brandon Brown’s misanthropic Frank practices the art of the woo with Britney Stout’s sharp-tongued Celimene. Photo by Paul Larkin.

It should be noted that a theatrical miracle of sorts is on display at Las Cruces Community Theatre as director Brandon Brown had to step in two weeks before curtain to assay the role of Frank, due to the unexpected departure of the play’s principal. His deadpan delivery serves the role well and his masterful understanding of the language belies any last minute anxiety the challenge may have engendered.

Brown’s effortless disdain has become the lightening rod to which the other actors can rail and strut with electric zeal. He’s a voltaic bug zapper incinerating and ameliorating any lingering fear, thus allowing his cast to ascend. And ascend they do, with a relish that makes the absurd pantomime so enjoyable to watch that even the running canapé schtick doesn’t become tiresome.

Stock characters, too, take on a new life under the skilled ministrations of an able cast. Megan McKinney’s virginal Eliante is unfettered awkwardness and desperation wrapped up in a frustrated bundle of girlish nerves and feminine need. Matt Esqueda makes the best of the dual role of Dubois and Basque with a relish that transcends vaudeville and elevates droll rejoinder into camp sass.

Chris Rippel’s toadying Philinte is a disassembling, blustery mess, while the three suitors for Celimene’s affections – the aforementioned Diven, Mike Cook’s officious Clitander and Julian Alexander’s aristocratic ignoramus Acaste – round out the cast with well-timed performances and subtle characterizations that keep the humor moving swiftly and steadily forward, right up to the timelessly goofy reveal.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you have been waiting for the theatrical experience that will once and for all convince you Las Cruces theatre has finally come of age, it would be, should be, School For Lies. This is community theatre with an edge that will make you wonder why none of these actors have taken the further step toward professionalism.

Not that we mind, much. Keep them here as long as possible, I say. Enjoy them while they’re here, but if this production is any indication, many of these worthy players are more than ready for the big leagues.

All I can say in closing is, catch the play, and the players in it, while you can. Will you regret it if you don’t? To paraphrase Frank, “colon, you would.”

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