Liars have been much in the news of late. Cyclist Lance Armstrong and college football player Manti Te’o gave highly publicized interviews in which each confessed to spinning tales they knew to be untrue. Last year’s political campaign featured some remarkably blatant lies and determined attempts to rewrite history.
Once our immediate outrage has passed, all this mendacity feels rather farcical — a reminder of our absurd credulity in the face of pleasing if implausible tales. Further examples of this perpetually amusing tendency can be found in The Liar, which the Ensemble Theatre Company will present beginning Thursday night at the Alhecama Theatre.
Both an old and a new play, The Liar was written in 2010 by David Ives, author of the recent Broadway hit Venus in Fur and the much-produced evening of one-acts All in the Timing. But it is based on a 17th-century comedy by Pierre Corneille and written in rhyming couplets. Reviewing the world premiere production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post likened it to “17th-century Parisian stand-up, a night at L’Improv.”
“The play is set in a classical period and has a classical style, yet there’s a contemporary spin on the language. That’s why I think it works,” said director Jonathan Fox. “It’s like an Andy Warhol take on a classic painting — you’re seeing the same work but in bright, neon colors. There’s a much jazzier sensibility.”
“David Ives calls this a ‘translaptation,’” said actor Adam Mondschein, who plays the title role. “It’s not a straight translation from the French; it has been reinvented for a contemporary audience. It was specifically written for a D.C. audience, so there’s a lot of political humor in it.
“There’s also a lot of Shakespeare in it. When my character, Dorante, starts weaving these lies, theater fans in the audience will notice that the first line of many of the stories I start are taken, word for word, from a Shakespeare monologue.”
“A lot of young actors don’t have a sense of Shakespearean comedy,” Fox said. “Adam does. He was the only actor to audition for that part who made us laugh.”
A native of upstate New York, Mondschein discovered acting his senior year in high school, when, on a whim, he took a theater arts class. His first experience in front of an audience came in a David Ives one-act, and his first full-length play was Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.
“I was Spear Carrier No. 2,” he recalled. “Me and the other guy came up with some funny bits, which the director liked and kept. My first collaboration! That started the wheels turning. The rest of the year, I spent reading Shakespeare. I came in second in a Shakespeare monologue competition, then got a theater scholarship to the University of Maryland.”
After earning his degree, working as an actor in Baltimore, and spending a couple of years overseas, he moved to Southern California. He did two shows with the now-defunct company Shakespeare Santa Barbara, which performed summers at the Fess Parker Winery and in the Presidio courtyard: The Comedy of Errors in 2007 (this time as one of the leads) and Much Ado About Nothing in 2008.
Mondschein recently earned an MFA in acting from UCLA, a degree that, in a sense, grew out of a lie — he only went to the tryouts in order to get more experience at auditioning. But if he was falsely representing himself, well, as Ives asks in The Liar, who isn’t?
“At some point in the play, Dorante launches into a beautifully poetic defense of lying,” Fox noted. “It’s not in the original, but it rings so true to me. We lie every time we walk out the door, in that we choose the image we want to present to the world by how we dress. On some level, we’re all liars.”
Ensemble Theatre Company presents The Liar February 7-24 at Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.). For more information, call (805) 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.