“The School for Lies” had me at the chandelier: lacy loops of glass and crystal ornament that cover most of the ceiling above the stage of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater (scenic design by Daniel Ostling, lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg). Next it had me with the costumes by Susan E. Mickey, satins and tulle in hues to rival the finest assortment of pastel macarons, along with over-the-top wigs by Melissa Veal. Then there were the rapid-fire risqué rhymes, the flying canapés, the — oh, stop. It was all too delicious.
Of course, all that deliciousness might come to naught were it not for a clever script by David Ives, dazzling performances by every member of the cast and masterful direction by CST artistic director Barbara Gaines. With all those snugly in place, it can be said: “The School for Lies” rocks.
Tony-nominated playwright Ives based his contemporary script on “The Misanthrope,” a comedy of manners by seventeenth-century French playwright Molière. Ives, who created a similar mashup of classical French theater and Broadway with “A Flea in Her Ear,” describes his process as “translaptation.” For “The School for Lies,” Molière’s send-up of society required surprisingly little updating — hypocrisy has a seemingly unlimited shelf life — and even Ives’s liberal sprinkling of current slang — a veritable glossary of scatological and sexual terms — is quaintly couched in rhyme.
The plot concerns Frank — he who insists on speaking frankly — a Frenchman who returns to Paris after living in England. Winningly played by Ben Carlson, Frank is a fish out of water, his black clothes and his blunt prose at odds with his new surroundings in a glittering salon, where he befriends Philinte (Sean Fortunato, pointing up his character’s vulnerability). Frank takes a strong anti-gossip stance and tries to prove his point by spreading a rumor about how Philinte dresses — just wait for that sky-blue gown.
That rumor will have consequences in Philinte’s quest to woo Eliante (a sparkling Heidi Kettenring), the cousin of the tart-tongued young widow Celimene, played by Deborah Hay, whose gravelly voice and décolleté capture her smart, sexy character. Fighting for Celimene’s affections and looking like a trio of sorbets in their court finery are Clitander (Paul Slade Smith), Oronte (Greg Vinkler) and Acaste (Kevin Gudahl), three talented actors who succeed in making pomposity look appealing.
Judith-Marie Bergan brings a lion’s share of felinity to the catty Arsinoé, who terrorizes Celimene with a slander suit. Samuel Taylor does a hilarious double turn as Celimene’s servant Dubois — watch out for those flying canapés — and Frank’s valet Basque. All excel in their roles, but the chemistry between costars Carlson and Hay — husband and wife in real life — adds a certain je ne sais quoi.
“The School for Lies”
The Courtyard Theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Through January 20, 2013
Tickets $58 – $78 at 312-595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com/school
Photos: Liz Lauren