"The Liar," UWM Theatre
On Saturday, December 9, we went to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Mainstage Theatre for the Peck School of the Art's production of "The Liar" by Italian playwrite Carlo Goldoni.
Goldoni (1707-1793)is viewed as one of Italy's most important writers for the theatre, in part because he was a major force in moving Italian theatre out of the traditional Commedia d'ell Arte improvisational school into the modern form of scripted play. His carreer produced more than one hunderred forty-five works for the theatre, of which the great majority were comedies. "The Liar" is an example of a style he frequently used, which has a alistic romantic comedy supported by classical Commedia characters.
The plot concerns the machinations of Lelio, a young Venetian returning to his family home after many years away. His lengthy sojurn has not improved him, as he has grown up a pathological liar. When he spies two attractive sisters, Rosaura and Beatrice, being anonymously serenaded, he steps forward and claims credit for the serenade and alleges that he is a visiting nobleman who has admired the sisters from afar. This derails the romantic plans of both the shy Florindo, who worships Rosaura, and Lelio's friend Ottavio, who desires Beatrice. When he tells Ottavio about the encounter (not knowing Ottavio is in love with Beatrice) he can't help but embroider the innocent flirtation into a highly improper encounter. The outraged Ottavio carries the tale to the girl's father, which sets in motion the eventual unravelling of Lelio's web of deceit.
The major comic thrust of the play, which still works well, lies in Lelio's compulsive fabrications, that he relies on even when unnecessary. (As the Bible says, "The guilty flee whan no man pursueth--.") It isn't the wit or cleverness of the young lovers that brings about the triumph of virtue, but Lelio's own ever more involved flailing around, together with the relentless suspicion of his father, Pantalone, picking at threads loosened by a couple of ill-timed letters. Lelio, "The Liar", is the anti-hero and his story takes on some tragic proportions, when, in spite of his original Don Juan-like goal to seduce both the sisters, he falls genuinely in love with Rosaura and loses her in the end to the honest Florindo.
The show was double-cast, with the players alternating between major and minor roles. This performance was the "Vivaldi" cast, with Darrel Cherney as Lelio, Rebecca Phillips as Rosaura, Emily Heitzer as Beatrice, Cullen Moll as Florindo, Rob Maass as Ottavio, Michael Cotey as Pantalone, and Hudson Doolittle as the Doctor. Jack Swotkowski, Kaija Rayne, and Jessica Marking performed the roles of Arrlechino, Brighella, and Coumbina, respectively.
One of the things that mark this as a major step away from the old Commedia is that the characters of Arrlechino and Columbina are the servants instead of the protagonists, and not necessarily very clever servants at that, although they do perform the function of commenting on their "betters'" actions. Instead, most of the dramatic thrust is carried by the good-looking and well-dressed middle-class lovers.
The show was great fun, although somewhat uneven. Most of the Commedia characters wore masks, while the main characters did not, except Columbina, who was unmasked. Commedia characters Arrlechino, Brighella, Pantalone, and the Doctor wore costumes at least referential to traditional Commedia styles, but Columbina wears a "normal" ladies' maid outfit. Some of the characters, notably Pantalone, had very stylized walks and gestures, but others did not, and ironically, Arrlechino, Brighella, Columbina and the other lower-class characters were some of the most naturalistic in manner. On the other hand, some of the lead characters would fall into humorous gesture or action seemingly just to liven up a scene--which may be period to the play but does not give an impression of a unified vision of the production. The play commenced with a bit wherein the cast drift on stage, shifting props, warming up, juggling, and playing pranks, which went on in my opinion, too long--a feeling perhaps exacerbated by the monotonous music underneath. Since the cast were interacting with audience, I wondered if I should interact back and shout, "Get on with it!"
However, once the play commenced, it galloped on at an enjoyable pace throughout. Cherney as Lelio carried the weight of the script very well, and made an engaging young rogue. (In profile with wig, he even resembled the portrait of Casanova.) Phillips as Rosaura, and Heitzer as Beatrice were pretty as Dresden dolls, and managed to quite creditably go from a becomingly modest simper to an ear-splitting bawl at a moment's notice. Michael Cotey was very good in the role of Pantalone, which required both a suitable suspicion for the proverbially paranoid character, and a juicy rant when his son's perfidy is discovered. The other cast members were quite able, spoke well, and some were impressively acrobatic. All in all, a very enjoyable night at the theatre.