The Lantern Theater Company offers up a fanciful, fun production to get you in the holiday spirit with its marvelously amusing staging of The Liar. Adapted by David Ives from Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy La Mentuer, a huge hit in its day, Liar is Ives at his wittiest. Ives is best known for his penchant for clever wordplay, and Corneille’s script gives him the opportunity to display his powers of alliteration to full effect. Written in iambic pentameter, Ives doesn’t exercise an ounce of restraint in what he calls his “transplantation” of Corneille’s 17th-century hit about mistaken identity and a young man incapable of telling the truth.
Director Kathryn MacMillan’s wonderfully contemporary production obliterates the fourth wall and involves the audience fully in the proceedings, showing the timelessness of Corneille’s play while using theater’s natural artifice to examine his assertion that truth is an illusion. MacMillan boldly cast her production not with veteran actors, but instead with Philadelphia’s next generation of actors. They’re not all newcomers, but for the most part, have performed in contemporary plays and not 17th-century linguistic tongue twisters intended to delight a Parisian audience that celebrated witty, poetic rhetoric.
The most shocking casting decision by MacMillan is her choice of Aubie Merrylees to play the elegant Parisian poseur and all-star liar Dorante. A young actor who exploded on the scene at the 2011 Philly Fringe in his exquisitely smart performance as a shy, awkward, geeky teen in Theatre Exile’s The Aliens—which earned him a Barrymore Award nomination—Merrylees again played an innocent as Wilbur in the Arden Theatre Company’s Charlotte’s Web last spring. Proving that casting against type can yield surprising results, Merrylees is sensational in a portrayal that solidifies his standing as one of Philly’s finest young actors. He’s joined in the merriment by Jake Blouch, who gives an extravagantly funny performance as Dorante’s headstrong friend Alcippe. Like Merrylees, Blouch has made his reputation in contemporary plays, but Blouch’s intensely physical performance compliments Merrylees’ nimbly evasive Dorante perfectly, and their verbal jousting and camaraderie is enchanting.
The Liar’s biggest contribution, however, comes from MacMillan, who digs beneath Ives’ verbal fireworks to reveal a surprisingly smart and romantic play exploring Dorante’s assertion that life is little more than “cosmic fiction,” a fabrication in which we all perform our selected roles. MacMillan choreographs the action magnificently and utilizes Meghan Jones’ smartly designed set pieces to create a myriad of locations on the tiny stage at St. Stephen’s Theater. Relying on the cast’s inventiveness, Maggie Baker’s fabulous period costumes, Shon Causer’s effective lighting, Christopher Colucci’s original music and sound design and—most importantly—the audience’s imagination, the production succeeds in transporting us to the streets of 1643 Paris, an elegant party town where fashion and style are more important than an individual’s moral fortitude.
One of the best directed and charming productions of the year, The Liar is guaranteed to lighten and warm even the heaviest, coldest heart. And that’s the truth.
Extended through Dec. 9. $30-$36. St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow sts. 215.829.0395. lanterntheater.org
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Calendar: Nov. 25-Dec. 2
Artie Lange knows the score