Park Square Theatre’s “The School for Lies” gives Moliere’s classic French farce a sly, contemporary spin

Arts / Article

Park Square Theatre’s latest production, “The School for Lies” by Tony-nominated playwright David Ives, is sly and delightful, a madcap romantic farce as ferociously smart as it is fun. The setting is 17th-century Paris, in the elegantly appointed drawing room of a much sought-after young widow, Celimene (Kate Guentzel), who’s as known for her barbed tongue as she is for her beauty. She’s joined by her cousin Eliante, a starry-eyed ingénue (Anna Hickey), and the girl’s secret admirer, the arch but endearing Philinte (Jason Rojas). Celimene is pursued with equal ardor by her nemesis, the conniving Arsinoé (played with magnificent malevolence by Andrea Wollenberg), and a trio of ridiculous dandies vying for her favor. In her social circles, genteel folk flirt and scheme and preen. They divert themselves with canapés, mockery and romantic triangulations. Our whip-smart Celimene is comfortably perched in polite society’s catbird seat (barring some pesky legal troubles), until a mysterious traveler from England joins the group and upends everyone’s orchestrations – he’s a man (appropriately named Frank, played with acerbic panache by John Middleton) whose quick tongue and candor prove a match for her own, piquing her curiosity and disarming her defenses.

Ives’ script re-imagines Moliere’s satire, “The Misanthrope,” as a high/low mash-up of past and present: it’s at once a faithful homage to the original text and a fearlessly novel update. The play is filled with pointed banter and bawdy innuendo, peppered with irreverent, darkly funny observations about social mores, sex and the absurd affectations of moneyed privilege, with a bit of 21st century pop culture asides thrown in for good measure. The whole kit and caboodle is rendered in rhyming couplets delivered at a breakneck pace. The furious tumble of complex dialogue, high-minded ideas and crass jokes is equally delicious and exhausting.

It’s a play that must be fiendishly difficult to pull off. And it’s risky to try: poorly executed, such as this would be insufferable to sit through.

Everything about the production is outrageous, over-the-top. The set design is spare but sumptuous: a grand, crystal chandelier, a pair of ornately carved doors and a handful of neo-classical oil paintings; Louis XIV-style furnishings in silk brocade. And everyone but our plain black-clad English misanthrope is elaborately coiffed, decked out in ribbons and tassels, gentlemen and ladies alike tottering on sparkly heels.

“The School for Lies” production photo. Courtesy of Park Square Theatre

But Park Square’s director for the show, Walking Shadow Theatre’s Amy Rummenie, shepherds the talented cast masterfully through their paces: the slapstick is deft and well-timed; the subtler interplay of characters’ movements across the stage are gracefully choreographed as well (no mean feat considering the sheer mass of those dresses). And the cast members, to a person, not only pull off the script’s tangle of verbiage with aplomb, the rhymes sound natural on their tongues. But above all these technical details, in Rummenie’s hands, the heart and unexpected earnestness of the piece shine through the sarcastic silliness. In the end, this romp is about more than Sun King-era cosplay, clever wordplay and au courant one-liners – there’s real insight and human dimension here, too.

There are a couple of weekends remaining in the show’s run. It’s a literate, sexy and impeccably executed production – sharply written, laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly tenderhearted. Even if the flounce and titter of a period French romantic comedy of errors isn’t your usual cup of tea, this show will win you over in no time.

“The School for Lies,” written by David Ives and directed by Amy Rummenie, is at Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Street Place, St. Paul, from January 10 to February 2. For more information on the show and ticket details, visit the venue’s website.