I've written about the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, before. It's one of the most bizarre and incredible theater companies in the country. II'm from Glencoe, so I'm biased, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong -- I'm not. It began life in the back of a bookstore, seating about 50, yet the productions were so high quality that the main theater critics of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune would head out to the suburbs, 30 minutes from downtown, and cover its openings. Further, when the New York Times sends a reporter out to cover the remarkable Chicago theater scene, they generally include the Writers Theatre.
Eventually, the Writers Theatre outgrew their back room, and about 10-15 years ago they moved to a "big" facility -- the back of the Glencoe Women's Club, which got redesigned and seats perhaps a whopping 125. (They kept the bookstore as a second venue.) The stage is about the size of your living room. Seriously. Yet quality remained sky-high. A production of A Streetcar Named Desire drew raves not only from local critics, but the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. An original musical, A Minister's Wife, was transferred to New York, playing at Lincoln Center. One of its regular performers, Jessie Mueller, went to Broadway last year and got a Tony nomination for One a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
On Tuesday night, I went to see their current production, The Liar, the classic comedy from 1644 by Pierre Corneille, with a new adaptation by David Ives. It was phenomenal, in fact one of the best productions I've seen there which is saying a whole lot. Nothing dated about it -- joyous, vibrant, exhausting pace, and hilarious.
The play is done in rhyme, and if that might scare you, it turns out to be half the fun here -- at times stylish, at times modern, at times winking at the audience about the conventions of theater -- as the actors face the challenge head-on and tackle the dialogue with gusto. The plot is sort of beside the point, but think of it as in the vein of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. There are a lot of errors, mistaken identities, romance and lying. Lots of lying.
I'll mention the actors because they deserve mention, since the quality was among the highest I've seen at the Writers Theatre -- an impressive standard. Nate Burger as the voracious liar who lies as easily as he breathes, LaShawn Banks as his valet who virtually chokes if he tries to tell a lie, Laura Rook and Kalen Harriman as the two forthright but bewildered ladies around who so many passions get convoluted, Michael Perez and Samuel Ashdown as friends sucked into the morass, Anne E. Thompson in a very funny dual role as the maid -- sorry, "maids" -- and Jonathan Weir, in a terrific performance as Dorante the Liar's father, who gets the emotional highlight of the night, a rich speech when he discovers what a liar his son is, and lays him out.
And tying it all together is some truly clever staging by director William Brown, who's able to help make a lunatic farce richly human and accessible. And along with fight choreographer Tyler Rich, they stage one of the funniest swords fights I've seen in a theater -- starting with real swords, that morphs to miming with sound effects, and goes so off-the-ledge that a member of the audience gets run-through, to long, uproarious laughter.
By the way, just so you know it's not just me, here's the opening paragraph in the review Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss --
"I am no great fan of 18th century French comedies of manners. A little of all that 'lifestyles of the nouveau riche and their servants' goes a very long way. But director William Brown’s production of 'The Liar,' now at Writers’ Theatre, is so effervescent, clever and deliciously played that I have been at least temporarily converted."
And by the way, again, just so you know it's not just me -- or just local critics -- or that I fibbed about the Wall Street Journal actually reviewing plays in this teensy, regional theater -- here's from the opening paragraph of the WSJ's latest review of the Writers Theatre, written by Terry Teachout, posted only yesterday:
"What's the funniest play ever written? I used to think it was 'Noises Off,' but now that I've seen 'The Liar,' I'm not so sure...I finally caught up with it in the suburbs of Chicago, where Writers' Theatre is giving 'The Liar' a frenziedly farcical production at which I laughed so hard that I was sore the next day."
Finally, as a treat, here's a trailer of the show. Unfortunately, there isn't much dialogue -- though some -- but it gives a sense of the venue and the vigor and quality of the evening
If you live in the Chicago area, it runs through the end of the month. Try to go. If this play is going to be in your area wherever you live -- hope that it's a great company that can do The Liar justice -- and if so, try to see it.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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