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“The School for Lies”: A glamorous comedy on love and authenticity

In their final program, the UMN/Guthrie Theater’s Class of 2022 impressed and entertained through a series of larger-than-life performances.
Actors on the set of “A School for Lies.” Photo courtesy of Dan Norman.

Marble walls, gold candelabras, a chandelier — stepping into the set of “The School for Lies” is like joining an elegant party.

Set in 1666 Paris, the larger-than-life play featured an ambitious class of graduating fourth-years, who are students in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Acting Program. This glamorous final production was directed by Stephen DiMenna and took place at the Guthrie’s intimate Dowling Studio with performances from April 15-23.

“The School for Lies” is based on “Le Misanthrope,” an iconic comedy created by the 17th-century French playwright Molière. Though this adaptation is also set in the past, the actors brought a modern twist to the still-relevant commentary on the hypocrisy of high culture. While gossiping in couplets, they snapped photos on iPhones and danced under disco balls.

We are introduced to an eccentric cast of characters in the salon of Celimene, an enthralling and witty widow who is being sued for slander. Celimene, played by Lucy Farrell, is surrounded by suitors who wear colorful ruffles and try to win her love through charm and pizzaz. However, she is unfazed by these theatrical displays of affection, still mourning the loss of her beloved husband.

Then we meet Frank, the only character who doesn’t care for the supposed inauthenticity of such flashy lives. Dressed in all black, he sticks out like a sore thumb. Frank, portrayed by Nathan Noel, is somewhat pretentious, despite his claims of being the only down-to-earth person in the entire city of Paris. He goes on long rants about how lust, greed and culture get in the way of genuine connection.

But not even Frank is able to avoid the allure of Celimene. He falls for her quickly and seems to have an instant change of heart, becoming the romantic he says he despises. The lovestruck suitor tries to charm the widow with promises of picturesque walks in the city and endless affection. Celimene sees that Frank is unique and is drawn to him right away.

Happy endings can’t happen that easily, though. Love triangles develop, with Frank getting tangled up in the very world he initially mocked for phoniness. Celimine’s cousin Eliante, her suitor Philinte and the scheming gossip Arsinoe enter the mix, giving the play drama and keeping the audience on their toes.

In the course of two hours, viewers were invited into this world of jokes, elegance and affection. The lively characters revealed themselves to be misleadingly wholesome, making it easy to connect with and root for them as the play went on, despite their delusions of grandeur. After all, they just wanted what all of us do — authentic love, friendship and connection.

The nine talented actors seen onstage brought their best to the performances by shedding their own skin and fully transforming into their characters. If it wasn’t advertised that they were college students, viewers might guess they were seasoned professionals at the Guthrie.

Even more obvious than their skill was their own enjoyment of the play. With sly innuendos, comical characters and modern dance numbers, the audience could tell the smiles on stage were genuine.

The company of 2022 faced a tumultuous few years, with the pandemic disrupting the program’s regularly scheduled shows and adding health concerns to everyone’s lives. Instead of the tragedy and realism typical of this final production, the actors were given this lighthearted, charming performance to close out their college careers on a high note.

“The School for Lies” stunned visually in addition to entertaining grandly. The chic set and elaborate costumes — all designed by faculty designers from the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance — create an all-encompassing world of glamor. From the tiny details like bows and color schemes to the huge hair and dresses, everything fit together perfectly.

Poking fun at the French and listening to gossip has never been so much fun, but in addition to its humor, the play is deeply heartful. The audience watches as vibrant characters search for their own truth and authenticity in the midst of so many distractions.

Throughout the performance, Frank, Celimene and the gang change, grow and find that what they’ve been looking for has been there all along — an important lesson for everyone.

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