"The Liar" at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
It was 368 years ago when French playwright Pierre Corneille wrote "The Liar", a farce about six young lovers and mistaken identities in 1600s Paris.But the version set to open this week at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey isn’t quite that old.
This production is a 21st century update, adapted two years ago by acclaimed New York playwright David Ives. And co-star Kevin Isola says audiences are in for something fresh.
“What I love most about it is [Ives] has preserved the sense of period and the sort of whimsy that is in the original text, but he has injected a lot of a more modern sensibility to it,” the actor says. “And when you combine those two things, you get a ridiculously enjoyable evening.
“It’s really sort of a mashup of 1643 and 2010.”
"The Liar" — directed by Paul Mullins — opens Wednesday and runs through July 29. It marks the fifth play Isola, a Los Angeles native, has performed for the Madison theater, the only professional company in the state devoted to Shakespeare’s works and other classics.
Jersey Arts’ Brent Johnson spoke with Isola about the theater’s latest production.
Jersey Arts: So for those who haven’t seen The Liar, imagine you’re writing a description of the play for the back of a DVD cover. What do you say?
Kevin Isola: A young man travels from the country to 1643 Paris and lies his way through a day and a half of adventure.
JA: Doesn’t it seem like 17th century drama was obsessed with mix-ups and swapped identities?
KI: That’s certainly the case in our play. During that period, there was a lot of that going on. A lot of those stories were taken from earlier works, even going all the way back to the Greeks. That was a very common theme at the time. It’s not explored as much in our play, but gender roles were frequently switched — particularly women disguising themselves as men.
JA: What do you like most about this adaptation?
KI: I play the servant to the lead character of Dorante, and not to give too much away, but normally you have a recording reminding the audience to turn off their cell phones and not to unwrap lozenges while the show is going on. [Ives] approached that in a very modern way. I come down and give the speech myself. There is an anachronistic feel to a lot of the text that doesn’t steal from the sensibility of the mid-17th century.
JA: How did you get into acting?
KI: I started as a little boy. My family was very supportive of it. I had one of those classic cases of having a drama teacher who said, ‘If you want, you can take a swing at this.’ I decided I would. So I chose a university [Duke] that had a good drama program. I went to grad school at [New York University] and got a master’s in acting. I just started doing it, and have been doing it ever since.
JA: How did you get involved with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey?
KI: About six or seven years ago, I auditioned for a play there, and artistic director Bonnie Monte was directing. I did not get cast in that. But very graciously since that time, she’s made offers to me. I guess she saw something — I don’t know what — that she thought might be fun to do with the theater. I’m grateful for that. It’s a wonderful place to work, with wonderful people.
CV: What makes the theater unique?
KI: They’ve been very committed to Shakespeare, for one. In the part of the country we’re in, it’s one of the few theaters doing that. They’re very committed to still trying to crack those plays open in a way that’s new and vital to modern audiences. I really admire that.
They also do a few plays from later time periods but still have a classic sensibility. For someone who is able to make classical plays still feel so incredibly vital to a modern audience, that deserves a lot of praise. That’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s very difficult for a theater to not only survive but thrive in that environment. But [Monte] gets new audiences in all the time, and gets them hooked.
CV: What do you think audiences will like most about "The Liar?"
KI: It’s a real exploration of what happens when a guy paints himself into a corner and then realizes there’s only one way out, and that one way out is to open himself to the truth of who he is. I think a lot of people have been in that situation. I know I have.
It’s also just ridiculously funny. While you’re laughing your guts out, you’re also finding yourself seeing this guy explore his own persona — sort of working himself out of a pretty crazy maze he’s gotten himself into.
"The Liar" plays the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 29.