With the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's 42nd season in full swing, things are about to get a little ridiculous. "The School for Lies," David Ives' present-day voice adaptation of Molière's 17th century classic "The Misanthrope," skewers the absurdity of high society with biting wit, hilarity and a dose of harsh truth.
But before the fancy French curtain opens, we sat down to talk all things outrageous with show director Giovanna Sardelli; Janie Brookshire, who plays Celimene; Jeremy Rishe, who plays Frank; and Patrick Halley, who plays Acaste, and who you may remember from The Rep's productions of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."
Opening night for "The School for Lies" is Friday, Oct. 13. For tickets and more information, click here.
Giovanna, can you set up the show for us?
Giovanna Sardelli: So Celimene, a society woman in France, is renowned for her soirées, for hosting the elite of the town. She paints portraits verbally of some of the characters, and for this she's being sued in court for slander. In walks in a man named Frank who has been away in England, so they joke that he has picked up terrible tendencies toward truth. He walks in and decides that he will not play their game and that he's going to challenge everyone. There's a love story twist in there, but I don't want to give it away. You'll have to come see the play.
If you had to compare your characters to anyone on TV, who would they be and why?
GS: I don't know that there's anyone on TV who's as articulate as these guys, but I do think Celimene would be an Aaron Sorkin character. Just a fireball.
Janie Brookshire: Ooh. I was thinking she might be Mary from "Downton Abbey," Michelle Dockery's character, because she's sort of good at skewering the people around her.
Jeremy Rishe: You could also compare Frank to Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He's a misanthrope, obviously.
JB: And I had a Seinfeld thought, too, in that they all get in trouble for just being not good people.
Patrick Halley: What can I say about Acaste? Maybe he's a Gob and Buster Bluth combined from "Arrested Development."
JB: Oh, and maybe there's some Gary from "Veep" in there.
GS: This is hard. There's just nothing on TV that's as sexy, as funny, as broad in its comedy as this show.
JB: It's true. Celimene is a high society woman who is a widow, and was very in love with her husband who was lost at sea. Since then, being a single woman who is intelligent, but lacking authority, she's sort of used the attention of all these suitors to get what she needs, whether that's favor or attention or whatever.
She uses their attention to both entertain herself and to get some power in a society in which she may otherwise not have very much. But at the same time, she's very critical of them, and that gets her into trouble. At heart, she's a romantic. Her love for her husband was deep and true, and we see shades of that as well. She's not just somebody who is playing them, who doesn't care about depth.
JR: Frank has been in kind of an exile, which may be a bit divinely imposed and may be a bit self-imposed. He's been away from the society that he knew and has become embittered for reasons that I can't tell you without revealing the show's secrets.
He returns home to sniff out what he's been hearing and doesn't like what he finds. So then he decides he's going to cut everyone down to size, to right wrongs and make the world a better place. He ends up getting what he wants in the end, but only after ranting and raving and sort of throwing his heart around the room.
JB: This play is taken from "The Misanthrope," and the misanthrope of that title is Frank.
GS: It's set in France at a time in which what was valued more than truth was lies and flattery and gossip. David Ives is skewing that in this play. Frank comes in and sees all of this ridiculous behavior and calls people on it. It really is looking at what we value in society. Is it pretty people who are ridiculous, or do we want something a little more honest? That's kind of the fun in the play is that it's set amongst ridiculous characters and in walks a non-ridiculous character.
JR: Early in rehearsal we were talking about Molière and how when he wrote "The Misanthrope," the king had recently become a patron of his, so this play was one of the first ones that he wrote while in the king's patronage. He was new to that world and maybe felt like an outsider to it and was maybe skewering that in a way.
PH: He was an early example of a playwright doing social satire. He was able to have his criticism pretty pointed and sharp because it was hidden in the guise of a comedic play.
JB: This is also the time in France when political cartoons were really invented… It was a time when people started to really feel freedom to lampoon the people with power.
PH: And I play a comic moron, as I often do, in sort of what Giovanna was describing. What was prized at that time was flair and absurdity and wealth and style, and I play a character who speaks to all of that.
Celimene has a trio of wealthy suitors who spend all day at her house gossiping and making fun and drinking. It's just this group who is very catty and talks trash about everybody, and my character in particular is just profoundly stupid. He's incredibly dumb and quite proud of that. He's unflustered and unwavering, he's eternally calm and nothing can get under his skin because he probably isn't smart enough to process it. He's a happy, rich moron.
One word I've heard John Miller-Stephany use when describing this play is "bawdy." Tell me more.
GS: I think David Ives is one of the great wits and intellects writing today. He's got a keen eye and is a smart playwright. He realizes no one wants to go to the theater and be schooled, they want to be entertained.
The play is set when there are layers and layers and layers of clothing, so this idea that underneath all of that are human beings with passions and wants and desires and needs certainly runs through the play. There's so much fun to be had in the idea of how you are to behave and the idea of how you might behave were you to be relieved of that for one moment.
PH: It's well-dressed people behaving very badly. It's a theatrical mashup, which I think is just so cool. It's a play of very high style, period French style, but the language is very contemporary and yes, bawdy, and at times raunchy. So it's a celebration of old grand style told in a very biting and acerbic modern way.
The whole show is written in rhymes. What are some of the challenges the script poses, and what is some of the fun you've found in that?
JR: I just think it's plain fun. How often do you get to talk in rhyme? It's written in iambic pentameter, so in some ways it's easier to get it in your head. Your brain will tell you you're missing a word in your line because the rhythm is not right.
JB: There's something very satisfying in it because so much of it is banter back and forth. I tell a joke and you're going to top my joke. When it's on a rhyme in rhythm, it's so satisfying both to see and to do. It really lands the joke in a way that's so delightful.
And David Ives got this from Molière, but he's very good at breaking it up between these long aria chunks of fully formed thoughts that are amazing to hear, and then these shared lines or some sort of argument that break up the rhythm so that it doesn't feel posed.
PH: It feels like the language, the rhyming in particular, is almost the 10th character in our play. In this world where it's all about wit, it's a constant game of verbal gymnastics and one upmanship. And it feels like once it starts, the train pulls out and just steamrolls.
JR: I guess that's the challenge - it's not working it so hard that the fun of it gets trampled, but also not sitting back on it so much that you miss the musicality of it.
PH: If someone came and saw it twice, they'd probably catch 20 new rhyming pairs. It's almost overwhelmingly sharp.
GS: It's masterful, what he's doing. He's weaving character and plot, jokes and observations all through rhyming couplets. It's use of language that I don't think is valued now, though "Hamilton" helped. Rhyming couplets are the original rap, the original slam poetry, you know? David Ives is able to play with all of that, to honor the roots of it but move it into a contemporary field.
JR: You said it right. It really is a masterful adaptation of a story that's 400 years old…
The Rep has shared a few behind-the-scenes photos of the intricate costumes and concept sketches for "School for Lies." What can can you tell me about this show's visuals?
PH: This is a world where bigger really is better — of style, of costumes, of hair. The wigs were custom built for all of us by a wigmaker in Manhattan, and they're massive and extraordinary. [Costume designer Rafael Castanera's] designs are just incredible and huge and layered from our shoes to our hair, and the set is this beautiful Parisian living room. There's nothing subtle about the style of this show.
JR: There is always that moment in a show like this when you go from wearing T-shirts in rehearsal to wearing costumes in rehearsal where you're suddenly having to do all these things so differently now. Things get a little tricky with giant sleeves.
GS: It is the most beautiful set I have ever worked on. I do a lot of gritty, grungy, contemporary theater, so when John Miller-Stephany asked me to do this, reading the play I was so excited. I love working on plays by living playrites, and I love David Ives, but when Rafael sent his costume sketches to me, what fun! It's truly the most beautiful show I've ever directed. That is so exciting to me.
PH: Lavish is an understatement.
So if there were one underlying lesson to be learned from this show for audiences, what would it be?
GS: Hate lies, love man instead. That's a line from the play, so I'd say he pretty much got it.