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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 3:36 pm | A Few Clouds 66º


Review: Get Schooled in Fun with Ensemble Theater Co.‘s ‘The School for Lies’

The School for Lies at Ensemble Theatre Co. Click to view larger
Matt Wolpe, left, Gino Montesinos and Adam Mondschein star in Ensemble Theatre Co.’s production of “The School for Lies” by David Ives, directed by Jonathan Fox and now playing at the New Vic in Santa Barbara. (David Bazemore photo)

To borrow an expression from the past, for a good time, call the Ensemble Theater Co. box office today to get your tickets to The School for Lies, the opening production in ETC’s 40th anniversary season at the New Vic Theater.

As it turns out, some old-school linguistic traditions can prove singularly fun.

Incisive humor, social satire, lusty motivations and relational confusion in David Ives’ The School for Lies all feel entirely contemporary, though the costuming, social structure and historical specifics convey the age of Moliere’s 1666 play, Le Misanthrope, on which the play is based.

A comedy written in the 17th century still being so relevant begs the question: Have we evolved at love in the least during the past 350 years?

A cast (well-played on all accounts) of the usual suspects features a smart, seemingly independent widow, her ingénue relation, a devoted, quirky male confidante, a dashing-if-vapid paramour, a straight-up-stupid (and proud of it!) aristocrat and a pair of servants both keenly aware of their charges’ flaws.

As Santa Barbara’s only professional theater company, Ensemble employs all Equity actors, and the quality of the performances shows it.

Highlights include a ginger Jill Van Velzer as Celimene, the widow in a pinch, mimicking and mocking in rap various folks in the social circle to a beat-boxing, eye-rolling valet played by Jamie Torcellini.

Adam Monschein, who won a 2013 Santa Barbara Independent theater award for best performance as the lead in another Ives play, The Liar, captures protagonist Frank’s crust and vulnerability with verve. He incites belly laughs throughout the play with sharp physicality, crisp timing and his character’s brutal honesty, amorous befuddlement and unleashed passion.

In a romantic subplot of awkward unlikely lovers, Laura Hillier as the young Eliante just discovering her sexual nature and Matt Wolpe as Philinte, the oft-referenced cross-dresser who saves the day as a real “queen,” make a tender-hearted couple in need of just a little coaxing.

The School for Lies at Ensemble Theatre Co.
Jill Van Velzer, left, plays Celimene and Samantha Eggers is Arsinoe in “The School for Lies.” (David Bazemore photo)

In character roles, Gino Montesinos as the gassy poet Oronte, Samantha Eggers as the self-righteous but barely concealed desirous bookworm Arsinoe, Ross Hellwig as the foppish Clitander and Matt Shea as the proudly ignorant Acaste offer refreshing foils to the more “serious” plights of the leads.

Tawdry but sweet humor and lite-kinkiness qualify the production as PG-13 bordering on R-rated, and my 17-year-old son and I cracked up often.

Having slogged in school through William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and others from a past so distant that our vocabulary and syntax have completely changed and having to refer to notes just to comprehend a single sentence at a time, I’ve rarely enjoyed theatrical poetry for its real merit.

Not only has metered verse never been as fun as it is in this production, but I found myself engaged with the dialog in new ways, anticipating what the rhyming completion of a line might be. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I was delightedly surprised.

Hip hop-swift pacing and no-holds-barred subject matter make the poetic form catchy, accessible and freshly entertaining.

The School for Lies runs through Oct. 21. Tickets can be purchased online by clicking here, or call 805.965.5400.

Noozhawk contributor and local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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