As St. Louis Shakespeare continues its landmark 30th anniversary season, completing the Bard's canon and beginning the cycle anew with last month's production of Hamlet, the small company is taking a decidedly modern detour with The Liar, David Ives' sparkling farce based on an obscure 1643 work by the French playwright Pierre Corneille.
Just where Corneille's work ends and Ives' begins is not entirely clear. Although Ives has retained Corneille's structure and written the entire play in rhyming couplets, Ives' The Liar bursts with reimagined characters and new relationships. It is more than a mere translation. It is, to quote the playwright, a translaptation.
It is also hilarious, as Dorante (Jared Sanz-Agero), a young country gentleman, braggart and compulsive liar with love on the brain, arrives in Paris and immediately dazzles Cliton (Ben Ritchie), an out of work manservant who cannot tell a lie.
"What you want is a socialite with spice," Cliton tells his new employer, who is on the prowl for a lady, "a vestal virgin not averse to vice."
Conveniently, just such a pair of ladies soon arrives: the flirtatious Clarice (Nicole Angeli) and her tongue-tied friend, Lucrece (Maggie Murphy). Dorante is immediately smitten with the spirited Clarice, impressing her with fabulist tales of his military prowess. But there's a problem — not only has Dorante confused the two ladies' names, but Clarice is also engaged to Alcippe (John Foughty), who rages with jealously when Dorante regales him with a sham tale of the amorous night he spent with Alcippe's fiancée.
Given to shimmering, high-wire flights of pure invention, Dorante's deceptions eventually find him dueling with Alcippe, rejecting his father's efforts to pair him with his beloved Clarice, and duped during a midnight assignation where he ruins his chances when he insults his intended.
The language is very rich, and a big part of The Liar's appeal is watching as Dorante builds — in iambic pentameter, no less — his tower of mendacities ever higher, his deceptions becoming more implausible line by rhyming, conniving line. Always on the cusp of having it all come crashing back to Earth, Sanz-Agero handles the role well, savoring the language as he gamely imparts to Cliton what amounts to his personal philosophy: "The unimagined life is not worth living."
Agero is matched by Ritchie, who, as the earnest Cliton, is both the play's narrator and a truthful foil to Dorante. Both Angeli and Murphy have fun with their roles as they toy with and are toyed with by Dorante, and Foughty is very funny as Alcippe, producing that particular strain of absurdity born when fatuous passion discovers jealousy. Jamie Pitt is also very good in the roles of twin servants: Clarice's handmaiden, the dour Sabine, and the carefree Isabelle, who serves Lucrece.
Director Suki Peters has infused the production with a sort of pop-cultural atemporality. Although the action clearly takes place in 17th-century France, JC Krajicek's costumes look like something out of a Cyndi Lauper video circa 1983. Adorned with pink and blue wigs, rainbow-colored eye shadow and colorful tights, the female cast members parade about the stage like so many confections at a cupcakery. Strange, then, that this aesthetic doesn't fully extend to the male cast members, some of who, like Dorante and Cliton, wear period costumes, while others, like Alcippe, fall somewhere in between.
The show remains visually interesting, but it's a strange and distracting inconsistency that begins to feel more like a gimmick than a fully formed artistic decision — particularly as the '80s camp quotient is ramped up with the stylings of Duran Duran and the theme song to Beverly Hills Cop.
Michael Dombek's simple set is spare but effective, taking us everywhere from central Paris to the Bois. Still, the 560 Music Center space is not ideal for theater. The company has defined a black-boxlike space with pipe frames and black curtains, but there's really nowhere for lighting, and some of the play's many set changes took longer than they should have — thanks in part to the ill-suited space, but also the decision to have the stage crew appear "in character," striking props in shiny heels and blue and platinum blond wigs.
Still, there's much to like in this funny, light-hearted production, which, to quote Cliton, invites you to "turn off your brain," and leave your worries to the evening's hero, "a lying genius, if a moral zero."
The Liar Through August 24 at 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity Avenue. Tickets are $15 to $20. Call 314-361-5664 or click here.
Follow RFT critic-at-large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.