Skewering high-society antics for comedy’s sake is something of a universal human pastime, sometimes executed with razor-sharp wit, in the hands of a skilled satirist like Moliere, or with blunt force, as you might see in a reality show like “The Bachelorette.”
“There’s something so delicious about watching people misbehave,” said Mark Light-Orr. He plays Clitander, a wealthy French aristocrat in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of David Ives’ “The School for Lies.” The play, a remix of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” promises to be a treat for audiences who enjoy a good laugh at rich people behaving poorly. ”The School for Lies” blends the highbrow and the low in its approach, aiming to create something that’s both socially relevant and hilariously funny. Here, the clever cynicism of Moliere’s comedy of manners is coupled with contemporary language, suggesting that the hypocrisy of upper-class mannerisms and mores transcends time and place — and that France in 1666 is closer to us than we might think.
The misanthropic Alceste is cast in Ives’ adaptation as Frank (Jeremy Rishe), a man who denounces the trifling drama of those who linger at the salon of Celimene (Janie Brookshire), but who finds himself drawn to her charm and her skills in cutting others down, which rival his own. Director Giovanna Sardelli described Celimene as “a widow who’s had to rely on men because of the lack of power women had at the time. She’s mostly relied on men whom she can easily manipulate, and she finds [in Frank] a man who doesn’t play by the same rules she’s used to.”
Frank and Celimene are surrounded by a clownish lot of supporting characters whose ridiculous behavior serves as fodder for the couple’s quips and barbs while providing plenty of laughs for theater-goers. The extravagant costumes and ornate set design highlight the colorfulness of the characters.
“Everyone will be rooting against us, and taking a lot of pleasure in it,” said Patrick Halley, who plays Acaste, a wealthy marquis and suitor of Celimene. Shawn Fagan, who plays the stumbling poet Oronte, said, “It’s a world where behavior is artificial because everyone is always being seen, there’s always an audience.” This kind of behavior is familiar thanks to the common thread tying these 17th century aristocrats to 21st century reality TV stars, particularly when they speak in modern slang.
“Hypocrisy and lies are the enemy,” Sardelli said. “The play works because everyone can relate to being opposed to those, but it’s also filled with lots of bawdy, sexy fun.”
Ives’ adaptation turns Moliere’s social satire into an all-out farce presented in rhyming couplets that retain the French bard’s witty lyricism with modern phrasing. The result is language that’s “rich, but doesn’t feel stuffy. It’s got a lot of sparkle to it,” Fagan said.
Carine Montbertrand compared her character, Arsinoe, to “a troll on Twitter,” adding that it’s a role she’s wanted to play for a long time. “I studied acting at the Conservatoire in France, and my dad was actually a Moliere scholar who was very much like Moliere himself,” she said.
At a recent performance in Washington, D.C., members of the cast said, some of the lines that lampooned behaviors felt right on the mark, dialogue we might recognize in some of our own ruling class of politicians. “It feels relevant, but like all good satire, it’s in this beautiful meringue of a play, it’s so light and airy and sweet,” Light-Orr said, with a core of rich, dark chocolate. “We’re working with a revised script, and this is only the second time that the new version has been produced,” Halley said. “It’s trimmed the fat. The comedy is streamlined and not a word is wasted.”
Speaking of sweets, Loblolly will be serving its salted caramel ice cream at The Rep to match the saltiness of the characters. Meanwhile, for those whose tastes lean more toward hoppy bitterness, Stone’s Throw is introducing a new Biere de Garde-style brew to mark the occasion.
“The School for Lies” opens Friday, Oct. 13, and plays through Sunday, Oct. 29. The cast and crew gives a panel discussion on the play Thursday, October 12 at the Clinton School of Public Service, noon, free. “Pay Your Age” night is Sunday, Oct. 15, and Sign Interpreter Night is Wednesday, Oct. 25. For tickets and more info, see therep.org/attend.