We went to see a tech/dress rehearsal of “The Liar,” a new show opening this week at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. Excerpts from students’ impressions follow:
Photo provided by the Shakespeare Theater Company
When observing a comedic play, it’s easy to believe that the witty verse, precise timing and hilarious slapstick simply come out of a well-developed script. After observing a dress rehearsal for David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar,” it became clear just how much work goes into perfecting the tiniest details of a play.
The version of the play presented at the Lansburgh Theatre is what Broadway playwright David Ives describes as a “translaptation,” a translation of the French original, tweaking certain character traits and plot points to adapt the screenplay to modern times while remaining true to the spirit of the story. “The Liar” tells the story of Dorante (Christian Conn), a smug, French aristocrat who continuously lies to get everything he desires. Dorante uses his charm and cunning wit to fool his father and friends and win over the affections of the beautiful Clarice (Erin Partin) and Lucrece (Miriam Silverman). However, for every lie he tells, Dorante must construct at least two more to get himself out of each unfavorable situation created by his tangled web of deception.
Upon entering the Lansburgh Theatre, the beauty of the golden lobby immediately drew me into the spirit of the theatre. After being greeted by one of the production assistants, our class was led into the actual theatre. Spread throughout the theatre were a number of soundboards, wires and other logistical instruments with production assistants weaving in and out of the aisles working to make sure the rehearsal ran smoothly.
The director of the play, Michael Kahn, sat directly in the middle, leaning back nonchalantly in his seat with a large microphone sitting in front of him. The stage was empty, save for the beautifully designed set. At Kahn’s command, Tony Roach, who plays Alcippe, appeared onstage as the stagehands retracted the balconies overlooking the stage, morphing the set from a pristine plaza setting to the inside of a lavish French house. As Roach awaited Kahn’s cue, he stood in place mouthing his lines to himself, mimicking sword parries and thrusts in preparation for his short monologue.
Kahn was nothing less than demanding, allowing Roach to recite his lines for no more than 10 seconds before he asked the actor to start over. This process would continue once Roach had satisfied Kahn’s demands. The set was returned to the beautiful outdoor plaza, with a poodle-shaped bush, surrounded by a circular stone bench, set as the centerpiece. For at least ten minutes David Sabin, who plays Dorante’s father Geronte, was asked to re-do his opening, barely making it past his first couple of lines each time.
By the time Conn made his way onto the stage with Adam Green, who plays Dorante’s trusty servant Cliton, the director spent the following two hours going over what amounts to no more than a 10-15 minute scene in the actual play. Kahn’s direction ranged anywhere from Dorante’s placement and lighting under a balcony to specific hand gestures made between him and Geronte during their conversation. Although Kahn’s loud commands were made a bit too frequently, the attention to detail and subtle changes made a world of difference. By the end of the scene the actors perfected their comedic deliveries, hinting at a promising future for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest production.
The director, of course, is the maestro. But it’s interesting to see the actors themselves suggest ways they can best portray their roles. It is here you get to see the actors at their most vulnerable, pacing around the stage while trying to remember their lines and figuring out what they should do and say to capture their characters and environment.
Though much of the play’s humor will come from the movement and dialogue of the actors, seeing many of these characters walk one by one onto the stage with their over-embellished costumes, especially the men, will also give the audience laughs. The costumes reflect — and spoof — the exuberance of the period.
… The director, Michael Kahn, a god of the theater world, embodied everything that I stereotypically conjure when I visualize any brilliant man of the arts. He was extremely attuned to detail, and also knew when to let the actors explore their own characters via poses, ad libbed dialogue or facial expressions.
Play rehearsals are not supposed to be fun … the process is supposed to feature a bunch of mercurial actors who can’t get along with the director and constantly blow lines. Watching the Shakespeare Theatre Wednesday, it seemed as though the cast and crew weren’t aware of what they were supposed to be doing. That is, they exhibited none of the aforementioned characteristics … and worked well together.
… Unfortunately, the adaptation tried to get a little too creative by interweaving classical language and ironic phrasing with hints of the modern world.
For example, Dorante’s beeping wristwatch plays an important role in the scene’s elaborate lie. Hints such as a digital watch are apparently dropped randomly … but the play doesn’t seem to explain why these characters from nearly five centuries ago wear digital watches and send text messages. … Disregarding this misguided attempt to connect modern society should be easy for the modern audiences because the hilarious jokes and beautiful setting will occupy their attention and keep them thoroughly entertained.
We observed the inner workings of this scenes, the actors and Kahn going back and forth on what made the most sense on stage and what techniques had the most comedic effect. We were encouraged to laugh if things were funny, and laugh we did.
Another reason to get excited is in the show’s details. Set in 17th century Paris, the production is lavish in set and costume. One parlor scene is encompassed by tall, black-and-white Victorian panels and accentuated in chartreuse accessories: a chandelier here and a sitting bench there. This then seamlessly opens up onto a street scene centered on a poodle-shaped hedge and two apartment balconies lined in magenta and yellow daisies.
Whether it was how something was said, or how they entered or exited, Kahn seemed to value their opinions (something I’m not sure many directors take into consideration) … no matter how many times he stopped and started a scene over, the actors and the rest of the production team didn’t seem to mind. He managed to keep things light with his own brand of humor …
With every punchline, the director would stop the performance … that line would be funnier if you lean against the wall, he would say. I initially thought he was just being picky … but after the actors took his suggestions and made those changes, it was, indeed, funnier.