A young man wearing a green beret and jester outfit dashed onto the stage. He quickly greeted the empty auditorium with cries of “All cellphones off! We're set! We've sexted.” These lines officially launched a rehearsal of Pierre Corneille's “The Liar” a farcical play that will show at North Bergen's High Tech High School in May. (High Tech is the county’s public arts and technical magnet school.)
“It's almost the feeling of the Three Stooges and the circus,” said Deborah Arters, director of the drama department at High Tech, just as Sebastian Martinez, the student playing Cliton, took the stage. “It's a comedy of errors, people pretending to be things they're not.”
American Playwright David Ives adapted “The Liar” for 21st Century audiences in spring 2010. That explains why cellphones exist in a play set in 1643.
The school's drama students were practicing the modern version, with twists from both Ives and themselves placed in (The “sexting” line was from the drama department, though Ives' did have Cliton mention cell-phones to the crowd in his adaption.)
A tricky plot
The play's plot reads like something between a ye olde love story gone off the rails and a Saturday Night Live skit.
Protagonist Dorante meets two women—Clarice and Lucrece--in Paris. Dorante is a pathological liar, hence the play's title. He impresses both women with his fibs about having recently returned from war in Germany.
After the women depart, he decides to court Clarice, mistaking her for Lucrece. What Dorante does not know, however, is that Clarice is secretly engaged to his best friend Alcippe. Or that his father, Geronte, is trying to get him to marry Clarice—who Dorante believes is Lucrece—who actually does like him back. Add in Dorante's lies to his dad about already having a pregnant wife, and the plot quickly thickens.
It can be a bit confusing initially.
“It's a comedy of errors, people pretending to be things they're not.” -- Deborah Arters
“David Ives, I don't want to say he dumbs it down, but he makes it more simple for everyone to understand, no matter what age you are.”
“The plot is very different from the original play,” said William Vence Jr., 17, a North Bergen resident who plays Philiste, Alcippe's best friend. “David Ives made it so that you can understand the plot the play is going through. I feel like the language and the plot is easier to follow along with.”
Translating medieval comedy
In one scene, Clarice and Alcippe break off their engagement, using juvenile insults towards one another, such as “Corvette,” “jock strap” and “prom queen.” Such barbs are a far cry from the “pigeon livered” and “three-inch fool” fare one might expect from a work during Shakesperian times.
Olivia Viteznik, 17, who plays Clarice, admits that the play's story is “hilariously complicated. But that's partially because it's a little bit of a parody of Shakespeare,” the Bayonne resident said. “Because Corneille was one of the big French writers of the French Renaissance. He was known for being kind of crazy.
“So Ives just made it more modern comically. In TV shows there's always crazy stuff. It's not necessarily just easier to understand, but easier to get into.”
Though not interested in a career as an actress, Viteznik loved her experience with the play and High Tech' s drama department.
“I really enjoy it,” she said, “because most school plays are just like, 'Oh, come here for after school for a little bit and just know your lines.' But for this, we actually do character work and history work. People think drama's easy, but we do a lot of research so some people might be surprised. I love it.”
To Vence, acting convinced him of another career path. “The psychology of characters has made me really interested in psychology and therapy and helping people,” Vence said. “So I think branching off from acting has made me want to pursue a field in psychology.”
The students found translating the play's slapstick humor and location to be minor roadblocks in their work.
“One of the traps a lot of actors fall into in doing farce is that they practice the comedy, and if you practice something a bunch, it won't be funny anymore,” Viteznik said. “So what we had to do is go and do our scenes as if it was serious and take it realistically, so we can practice it so we could have honest reactions. And from that we could build little bits and little jokes and funny stuff like that. If you start with comedy, you'll only go down. You have to build up to it.”
“What France actually is like in our minds and what it is on a stage is two totally different things,” Vence said. “So I think that trying to find a realistic part of living in France, I think that was the hardest part for me.”
The students will perform “The Liar” at High-Tech on May 4 and 6 at 7 pm, and May 5 at 3 pm. The school is located at 85-11 Tonnelle Ave. Tickets are $10, and $5 for the matinee. They can be purchased at https://www.showtix4u.com/boxoffice.php.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org