Arvada Center kicks off its repertory season with a rejiggered French farce

Man, there is a lot going on in this show! If some AI program or very bored theatre nerd were to be tasked with affixing numbers to the Arvada Center’s production of The Liar, it might look something like this:

  • Audience takes: 314
  • Boob jokes: 43
  • Double entendres: 739
  • Modern cultural references: 27
  • Pratfalls and/or splits: 92
  • French yé-yé songs: 10
  • Who songs: 1
  • Dick jokes and/or phallic inferences: 57
  • Austin Powers-like interstitials: 18
  • Booty shakes: 84
  • Pelvic thrusts and/or gyrations: 138
  • Instances of mistaken identity: 55
  • Lies: Incalculable

Based on a 17th century French farce by Pierre Corneille, this 2010 version of The Liar was adapted by the brilliant David Ives. Taking the bones of the story, Ives transposed it all into rhyming iambic pentameter, and director Geoffrey Kent made the inspired decision to set the action in 1960s Paris. This opened up a whole smorgasbord of outrageous costumes by Kevin Copenhaver as well as a rich soundtrack of well-chosen ’60s French pop (yé-yé) songs. That in turn gives the show the feel of a musical for a lot of the action, with some super fun choreography orchestrated by Grady Soapes (taking time off from his day job as casting director for the Denver Center Theatre Company).

The plot is a hyperbolic Shakespearean comedy-like riot of all the stuff listed above and centered around the liar, Dorante. Played by Ryan George in an absurd striped suit, Chelsea boots and Desi Arnaz wig, Dorante isn’t a liar out of malice. Lies get him where he needs to go, or so he believes, and as we wait for them all to turn against him and reveal the folly of his ways, things end up justifying his appalling mendacity.

Ryan George and Logan Ernstthal | Photo Amanda Tipton Photography

Kent assembled, as he calls it, a “ridiculously talented” cast of local and out-of-town actors who milk every drop of potential funny out of this fast-paced show. Staged in the Arvada Center’s smaller black-box theatre configured in a thrust style with the audience on three sides, it gives the comedy an intimate and immediate feel. There’s a good deal of interplay with audience members and, as noted above, quite a few takes and asides meant crossing the fourth wall.

Love polygons

As farces do, The Liar turns down the wrong road very quickly, with Dorante mixing up the girl he’s interested in, Clarice (Noelia Antweiler) with her friend, Lucrece (Constance Swain). With his newly hired valet Cliton (Topher Embrey) by his side, Dorante plunges ahead in pursuit of his love, dispensing lies with wild abandon and infuriating everyone he comes in contact with.

Flopping about the periphery is his father, Geronte (a delightful Logan Ernstthal), who’s set up an assignation with his son and Clarice separate from all the other stuff.

Got all that?

Cliton is the ideal foil for Dorante’s duplicity at the same time he’s very much his own character. With a wild shock of hair, a paisley explosion of an outfit and a naivete that works well for his new boss’s purposes, Embrey really brings this character to life. A big man with zero hangups about his body, the actor uses every trick in the book to draw laughs and does so successfully and convincingly.

George has a ball with Dorante, playing him as that guy who’s 100% engaged with his many tales — at least until he starts forgetting all the details. Bullshit artist though he is, you just can’t help but like the guy.

The object of his affection, Clarice, is a mercurial and sharp-tongued romantic at heart who’s both intrigued at the thought of a new lover but still clandestinely beholden to her fiancé Alcippe (Sean Scrutchins). Antweiler blows this character wide open with a highly charged performance that’s as energetic as it is hilarious.

In bright red pants and piling up an alarming number of injuries along the way, Scrutchins does some truly bizarre physical contortions that might’ve had Buster Keaton sit up and take notes. It’s the kind of performance that makes audience members perk up when he enters the stage: What’ll he do next?

He’s accompanied at all times by Philiste (Jihad Milhem), yet another Parisian in search of love who nevertheless accommodates the twisted whims of his friend.

Sean Scrutchins and Jihad Milhem | Amanda Tipton Photography

Flower power

The other two female characters are very much central to the plot, with Lucrece also befuddled by the mistaken identity and thinking that she’s the object of Dorante’s eye. In her yellow floral mini dress and canary beret, Swain’s Lucrece is another ball of energy and carbonated hormones who’s a ton of fun to watch. Kristina Fountaine plays the Jekyll-Hyde twins Isabelle and Sabine. The latter is Clarice’s stern and physically aggressive maid while Isabelle is a randy bon vivant with her sights set on Cliton. He, of course, is flustered beyond belief when seemingly the same woman is either purring up his side or punching him in the balls.

Fountaine is a lot of actor packed into a petite frame, and she manages her two characters beautifully — at one point switching back and forth on a dime when both are needed on stage at the same time.

Topher Embrey and Kristina Fountaine | Amanda Tipton Photography

The Liar has a lot going for it, and it’s a strong out-of-the-gate for the resumption of AC’s repertory program after the pandy break. Alongside all the onstage talent, shout-outs also go to scenic designer Brian Mallgrave for his incredibly versatile and fast-moving set pieces as well as to Shannon McKinney and Jason Ducat for lighting and sound design, respectively.

It can at times seem like too much of a good thing, with so much packed into it that it tops out at almost three hours with the intermission. That’s a long haul for any comedy, especially a farce, and I doubt I was alone in wondering when it would finally resolve itself.

That aside, this is a particularly inventive piece of comic theatre that Kent really added a lot to with his choices. It may be comprised of a lot of familiar elements, but it’s much more than the sum of its parts. All told, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen on stage in Colorado in some time, maybe ever, and it clearly goes into the “don’t miss it!” column.

Black Box Repertory Theatre lineup

The Liar: Feb. 4-May 22

Animal Farm: Feb. 25-May 21

Stick Fly: March 18-May 19