The North Coast Repertory’s production of the San Diego premiere of The School for Lies features a narrative device that is rarely featured in a modern day play. The two-hour plus comedy is written in verse, which means the entire dialogue consists of rhymes. In the wrong hands, this could lead to an exhausting and boring affair. Luckily, the script is written by Venus In Fur playwright, David Ives, whose irreverently modern sense of humor shines throughout the evening.
Adapted by Moliere’s The Misanthrope and set in 17th century Paris, the story begins with the audience being introduced to Frank (Richard Baird), a foul mouthed cynic who shares his bleak views of humanity with his acquaintance, Philinte (Joel Ripka). Both of them are spending time in the drawing room of Celimene (Jessica John), a smart, but shockingly blunt socialite who cannot stand Frank’s pessimistic attitude.
After Frank randomly insults Philinte, Philinte decides to get revenge by telling Celimene that Frank is the illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV. This leads to many comedic misadventures full of lust, satire and slapstick.
The main reason The School for Lies works is because Ives does not use the endless rhyming as a crutch. Instead, he features a fun story with numerous plot twists and loony characters. The witty use of couplets only adds to the ridiculous mischief.
This is Andrew Paul’s first time directing at the Rep in Solana Beach and it seems like he has been staging farces there for years. His style is appropriately over the top by incorporating bright lighting design from Matt Novotny, colorful costumes from Alina Bokovikova and ridiculously bizarre wigs from Peter Herman. All of these elements, along with Marty Burnett’s sophisticated set, almost upstage the actors, but Paul has cast a lively and talented ensemble and every member has their share of laughs.
As Frank, Baird seems to relish the opportunity to play an average guy who shifts from being a disdainful pompous jerk to a somewhat gooey romantic. He frequently catches theatergoers off guard with his sly comedic chops.
Ripka has acted in a previous version of The School for Lies, at the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theater, and as Philinte, he appears to be very comfortable putting himself in embarrassing situations. He plays some of the most cringe worthy material with such earnest sincerity, that viewers won’t feel guilty for having fun at his expense.
With her deliberately stagey physicality and expressive face, the reliable John charms as the outspoken Celimene. She has strong interactions with Baird and the two of them have a strangely endearing love/hate relationship.
As foolish shallow suitors trying to propose to Celimene, Jason Heil, Phil Johnson and David McBean are hilariously dumb, dumber and dumberer. They all steal scenes together as the three come up with idiotic ways to win Celimene’s affection.
The legendary local stage actor, Jonathan McMurtry, has deadpan appeal as a helpless butler, Dubois, and trashy looking valet, Basque. A reoccurring sight gag with McMurtry and a silver tray leads to many priceless moments.
Contributing to the zaniness are Dana Hooley as the backstabbing Arsinoe and Brenda Dodge as Celimene’s cousin, Eliante. Dressed up like Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” Hooley oozes evil, while Dodge has a loopy transformation from being a Virgin Mary to sex starved tiger.
Some might be surprised to see such crude language featured at the Rep. I suggest that everyone give it a chance, because for every shocking comment, there is an intelligent observation.
The School for Lies makes the most of an unusual concept with addicting merriment throughout its running time. The acting, directing and staging are tremendous. Dare I say the experience is stupendous?
[box] Performs Sundays at 2 and 7, Wednesdays at 7, Thursdays at 8, Fridays at 8, and Saturdays at 2 and 8. Tickets are $44-$48 with discounts for students, military, and seniors. Running Time: about two hours and eight minutes, with one-15 minute intermission.