All in the Rhyming

Currently, a very silly rap track about thrift store shopping holds the number one place in the pop charts. The newsworthiness of this event centers on its indie stature — breaking into a corporate dominated chart through new media means. But the other story — and why Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” got passed around Facebook and Twitter — is how we all still love the humor and thrill of rhyming, especially when it makes us laugh.

This thought bubbled up while watching Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, “The Liar” at the Alhecama this last Sunday. David Ives updating of Pierre Corneille’s Restoration farce has kept its iambic pentameter and its rhyming scheme, and earns so many of its belly laughs with rhymes.

And the sillier the better, according to Mr. Ives. Characters finish each others’ sentences in rhymes. Or they desperately search for the words to rhyme. Or Mr. Ives makes it a completely unconscious decision. Despite the smarts on display, the biggest laugh of the night goes to finding a word to rhyme with “bivalve.” These are the kind of poetic skills your English teacher frowned upon.

This delightful play comes from an ongoing project from New York’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, where modern playwrights have been teamed with older comedies to revamp and revisit. Mr. Ives, best known for the rep standard “All in the Timing” and the more recent “Venus in Furs” is in his element here, using every opportunity in this slight plot to indulge in word play.

The Liar of the title is Dorante (Adam Mondschein), a spinner of tall tales who arrives in Paris, quickly employs a servant, Cliton (Matt Wolpe), and starts searching for lasses to woo. He espies Clarice (Katharine Leonard), but winds up declaring his love for her friend Lucrece (Rebekah Tripp) after getting their names mixed up. Further confusion happens over twin maidservants, Isabelle and Sabine, both played by Tiffany Story, and the fact that Clarice already has a secret fiancé, the angry and jealous Alcippe (Ross Hellwig). But Dorante is adept not just at making up outrageous claims on the spot, but weaseling out of complications that arise from them. He’s the hero of the story, so no, there is no comeuppance for him, and that’s perfectly fine.

Ensemble Theatre often casts from outside Santa Barbara, but the pleasure in this production is in seeing so many actors from town. Matt Wolpe, doing his clownish best, was one of the leads in Ensemble’s “Fantasticks” and co-starred some years back in “Striking 12.” His Cliton serves as our guide into the play, helps move scenery around with a wink, and unlike Dorante can only tell the truth. Casey Caldwell, playing Alcippe’s friend Philiste, is another local, the artistic director of Ratatat Theater Group, and has been involved in Elements Theater and Lit Moon productions. Though playing a minor character, Caldwell brings the right counterbalance of energy to the role in order to contrast with Alcippe’s hotheaded nature.

I wasn’t a fan of “The Lion in Winter,” last season’s Ensemble play, but Ross Hellwig co-starred in that production as the cunning Geoffrey. Here he strikes a bit of a Jim Carrey vibe in his green-eyed monster madness, both threatening and silly.

Other returning Ensemble players include Leland Crooke as Dorante’s father Geronte, last seen as the old actor in “The Fantasticks.” And Tiffany Story, who has been on pretty much every stage in town, gets to play both maidservants here and unleash her comic side, playing both sexy (Isabelle) and dour (Sabine). Knowing the actress must be going through costume quick-changes backstage makes her continual entrances and exits funny in themselves, and a audible rip of velcro gets a laugh near the end of the play.

The two lead women do well playing with Dorante, setting up schemes to entrap this man they can both figure out, but both like. Katherine Leonard’s Clarice is all perky and smart; Rebekah Tripp’s Lucrece demure and thoughtful. Of all the characters, they are the most grounded and need to be so to contrast with Dorante.

Because it is Adam Mondschein, new to the Ensemble, who makes this production a must-see. His Dorante commands the stage throughout, a bundle of mad energy and duplicity, running just ahead of everybody as he weaves reality out of imagination. All the while Mondschein is shading Dorante with subtle movements, looks and ticks, but we don’t think of the actor, just the character. This is one of the best comic performances in many a season at the Ensemble, just stunning.

Seen chatting with friends later after the show, Mondschein looked nothing like the man on stage. It was easy to imagine that Dorante was still in there, waiting for the next performance, waiting to get away with it all again.

THE LIAR
When: Through Feb. 24. 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. 4 p.m. matinee Feb. 16
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara Street
Cost: $40-$65
Information: 965-5400 or www.ensembletheatre.com

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