- FLATTERY WILL GET YOU EVERYWHERE: The Rep's production of David Ives' "The School for Lies" is a confection of rhymed couplets, sprinkled with philosophy and cell phones.
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of "The School for Lies," a remix of Moliere's "The Misanthrope" from David Ives, competed against a touring run of "Kinky Boots" on its opening weekend. That's no small task for a nonmusical on one of the busiest weekends of the year, especially one that prefers to serve its razor-sharp social critique wrapped in puff pastry, atop a delicate silver platter — or one whose trash talking could have borrowed its dour dignity from "Fawlty Towers," its slipperiness from a Mozart opera buffa and its sickest burns from '90s-era diss tracks like Ice Cube's "No Vaseline" (the line "Callin me Arnold but you been-a-dick" is not in this play, but, were Benedict Arnold's chronology shifted by a hundred years or so, it could be.) While I'm no stranger to the giddiness you can get from the glittery fruits of a symbiosis between Cyndi Lauper and drag queen culture, I suspect that the word about the rapid-fire tapestry of rhyme that is "The School for Lies" will get around — and that the folks who filled those seats at Robinson Center this weekend will find good reason to fill some at The Rep before this comedy of manners closes Oct. 29.
Set designer Robert Mark Morgan's set, first of all, is eye candy; gargantuan and ornate, lending the sense of grandeur we need to understand the elite social station our protagonist Celimene occupies in 17th century Paris, played with spark and strength by Janie Brookshire. The giant backdrop is concave at its peak, giving the audience the sense that they are in the interior of an enormous wedding cake iced with baby blue fondant and gold trim.
Director Giovanna Sardelli's take on Ives' "The School for Lies" telegraphs a good deal of visual information even before the dialogue sets in, and the rest becomes quickly apparent. With a fake cell phone call that doubles as a reminder to turn the contraptions off for the show (and, incidentally, settles any mystery about whether we're really meant to hear actors soliloquy-ing in pure 1666-speak for hours), we're placed squarely in the not-quite-royal world of social-ladder climbing in France, with a handful of select anachronisms and tons of pre-Enlightenment malaise: "Where is the gusto of the Renaissance? We spend our days discussing restaurants."
Those words are at the core of the supremely jaded — and aptly named — Frank, whose despondence and cynicism is played with panache by the nimble Jeremy Rishe. (Rishe's side gigs, notably, include a tuition-free theater training program he co-founded for underserved kids in NYC called Kids Creative Collective and "Jewtah," a developing film about a Jew living in Mormon-centric Utah.) Rishe is impossible not to watch as the "snarky and morose" Frank; he's as facile in his heady, bullish posture at the play's outset as he is to his lovesick pelvic swooning in the latter bits, showing us quite physically whether Frank, at any given point, is being led by his head or his heart. (In a stroke of brilliance, someone at The Rep programmed the "lights up" at intermission to be accompanied by Beyonce's fitting — and fittingly anachronistic — "Crazy in Love.")
As for the rest of the cast, many of whose bios note having worked with Sardelli in the past, they're loaded with television and Shakespeare propers alike — "Othello" here, "Law and Order" there. A feat of rhyming couplets like "The School for Lies," though, would be perilous without this level of talent; like the rap battles it resembles, the breakneck pace of the play's flow leaves precious little room for waffling or half-commitments. The play runs a scant 98 minutes, and there's barely time to process one innuendo before we're on to the next one. To the point, I overheard a man in the lobby at intermission saying, "There's so much I missed that I bet I'd catch if I saw this again." Maybe more importantly, though, several of the actors — Carine Montbertrand, Joe Wegner and the show-stealing Michael Fell, for example — are commercial voice actors with experience in audiobook narration. Read as: people with the vocal freedom and facility to coax a lyrical quality from the spoken word.
Opening weekend attendees will go on, and rightly so, about the quirkier moments: the beatboxing sequence, the dance routine to Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" on harpsichord and the bombastic rhyme schemes; "Phyllis" is rhymed with "bacillus," and "enstill us," and "fulfill us." For all of the style and icing Sardelli and this cast gave "The School for Lies," though, the center still holds. Even as they're coupling "jim jams" with "flim flams" and channeling John Cleese, they manage to get at the foreboding substance of Ives' (and Moliere's) play — that a society that builds a system of rewards based on mutual and mindless exchange of flatteries will not be the better for it.