“The unimagined life is not worth living,” is just one of the many glittering witticisms that cascade through David Ives’s brilliant script for The Liar, and it’s an apt description of the ethos that lies at the heart of this highly entertaining, unceasingly funny new production. Adam Mondschein plays Dorante, an incredibly silly French fop with nothing to recommend him but his luxuriant long hair, his frilly lace musketeer suit, and an irrepressible urge to engage in the most fantastical of fabrications. When Dorante arrives in Paris with the intention of becoming engaged to some eligible young woman, he takes on as his servant Cliton (Matt Wolpe), an equally ineffectual figure with exactly the opposite problem — he can only tell the truth. Together, they collaborate to pursue a pair of elegant young women, Clarice (Katharine Leonard) and Lucrece (Rebekah Tripp), even as Dorante’s friend Alcippe (Ross Hellwig) attempts to finalize his own engagement to Lucrece and Dorante’s father, Geronte (Leland Crooke), works to make a match between Dorante and Clarice. Many obstacles stand between Dorante and his goal, including the comical device of a lady’s maid who is in fact two very different twins, Sabine and Isabelle (Tiffany Story). Casey Caldwell fills out the rather large cast, at least by Ensemble Theatre standards, as Philiste, friend to Alcippe, and witness to all the foolishness.
Written in iambic pentameter couplets, Ives’s script makes marvelous fun out of Pierre Corneille’s original concept, adding just enough of the contemporary and the crude (one fart joke, for example) to up the ante on this already rambunctious tale. The heart of the comedy comes in Dorante’s several set speeches, which are really miniature poems on the theme of flagrant disregard for veracity and reality. When Dorante decides to take advantage of something he overheard that has made his friend Alcippe jealous, his subsequent description of the supposed assignation he has shared with Alcippe’s fiancée is so uproariously over-the-top that it leaves the audience howling with laughter and Dorante’s servant Cliton gasping in shock. When Dorante must stall for time in order to put off his father’s matchmaking of him with Clarice while he pursues her friend Lucrece, he leaps without hesitating into an elaborate story that ends up with him married at sword point to a princess from another part of France.
Despite any number of strong performances, and expert direction from Jonathan Fox, The Liar’s focus remains on its central figure, and this is as it should be. This is Mondschein’s show, and he plays it to the hilt. His Dorante is the single funniest and most memorable character seen on a Santa Barbara stage in some time. Mondschein has it all — the deft timing, the subtle, carefully crafted sequenced reactions, and that indefinable insouciance that makes Dorante’s every new advance into the realms of fabrication a source of further, more intense laughter for the audience. The scene in which Dorante and Alcippe fight a preposterous (and thoroughly unnecessary) duel carries the madness of the show’s dialogue over into the action, and, by the end, the audience is as dizzy as the cast from all the silly reversals and revelations. As a good student not only of French farce but also of Shakespeare (the script is peppered with apt quotations from the Bard) and Oscar Wilde, Ives knows a thing or two about the value of a lively fib, and, in this production, his expert writing receives an outstanding run.