You never have to look far for a modern-dress version of the classics. It is not uncommon to see an updated--some would say dislocated--production of Shakespeare, Congreve, Moliere or Sheridan.
The most recent example was South Coast Repertory's attempt to transform "The Misanthrope," Moliere's satirical 17th-Century comedy, into a '40s-style romp set in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Usually, directors give some high-flown justification for updating: They want to shed new light on the play or illuminate the relevance of the theme or deconstruct the characters to make them fresh , etc.
Rarely will a director say what Andrew Barnicle says of "The Liar," Carlo Goldoni's 18th-Century commedia dell'arte Venetian farce opening Thursday at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater: "Our update doesn't have any profound philosophical ramifications. It's just an atmosphere that gives us good reason to do some shtick that we otherwise might not be able to do."
Barnicle's candor is neither anti-intellectual nor uninformed.
Without batting an eye, the playhouse's artistic director can deliver a lecture on the historic significance of Goldoni and how he changed Italian Renaissance theater to appeal to the rising middle class of the 1750s.
Without taking a deep breath, he can offer the fine points distinguishing commedia improviso (improvised comedy) and commedia soggetto (comedy improvised within a plot outline), or give a spontaneous lecture on various aspects of commedia erudita (scripted comedy).
By the time Goldoni came along, Barnicle said in an interview at the Moulton, "the commedia was enemas and men giving birth and all kinds of low-class pranks." In fact, the term slapstick is derived from the name of the weapon that some commedia characters carried.
"It was literally called a slap stick. It made a loud sound when you hit somebody with it but didn't actually hurt.
"Many actors have a generalized notion of what commedia dell'arte is. It's based on whatever training they've received--working with masks, playing zanies, doing acrobatics, performing slapstick. But they often don't know where the commedia came from and how it got to us."
By the middle of the 18th Century, commedia had degenerated into the sort of vulgarity similar to some of the improvisatory shows seen on television these days, Barnicle said, adding that commedia dell'arte, the term for the overall form, had difficulty maintaining its level of skill.
"Think of 'Saturday Night Live,' which had the same trouble. The actors became more important than the form, which is always a danger to the form."
As an Italian nationalist, Goldoni took it upon himself to reform what is Italy's greatest contribution to the theater, aside from opera.
"He made use of sentimental comedies, like Marivaux's French plays from the preceding generation, and added the stock commedia characters. He smoothed out their vulgarities and 'middle-classified' them."
Goldoni was the first to get rid of the traditional commedia masks, not an easy task because professional actors of the period were known for certain masked roles throughout their careers.
"In our day, the equivalent would be asking Elvis Presley to get a crew cut," Barnicle said, "or asking George Hamilton to get rid of his tan."
Besides staging "The Liar," Barnicle has written a new colloquial version of Goldoni's 1750 comedy in collaboration with his wife, Sara, a reference librarian and actor, who provided him with a verbatim translation of the original Italian text.
"We're partners in this crime," he said. "I added lots of Italian slang, Chicago-style. It's 'The Liar' on Taylor Street. But it's still in Venice during Carnivale. The slang sounds really bad. It's not. It just sounds that way. Also, by bringing the play up to the '60s, we can take advantage of the high-style explosion of that period--Pucci in fashion, Fellini in film, and all the rest."
The costume design of the production, he said, will be string ties and sideburns, pointy shoes and bouffant hairdos. The scenic design will be Venice unchanged from the Renaissance, as it is in reality, complemented by the inevitable modern eyesores of telephone wires and junction boxes and graffiti.
Ron Campbell will fill the title role, making his third appearance at the Moulton following starring roles in "The Mystery of Irma Vep" and "Strange Snow." Campbell, a top-notch pro who won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award in 1993 for his one-man show "Monsieur Shaherazad," also took the award for "Best One-Man Show of the Year" with the same piece in London in 1994.
In this outing, he plays Lelio, a pathological liar who returns to Venice after a 20-year absence. In less than a day, he alienates everybody on the piazza by spreading nasty rumors about them. Each time he's caught in a lie, he tells a bigger one and finds himself in a more complicated situation. Naturally, the closer he comes to seducing the woman he adores, the thinner the ice gets under his lies.
"I've always loved commedia," Campbell said in a separate interview. "Not that it's right up my alley. But it's a nice little jungle gym to play on. It gets me into all sorts of acting quandaries. For instance, all my lines are lies. I'm trying to find the two or three where I tell the absolute truth. Usually that acting quandary is the other way around."
Goldoni modeled Lelio mainly on the old commedia archetype of the soldier braggart Capitano.
"Only Goldoni makes him more complex," the actor said. "Capitano was just an insecure guy, the absolute braggart revealed as a coward. But Lelio's fear of his shadow is a self-imposed flaw. He doesn't believe the truth is ever good enough. He's deluded, and he preys on other people's delusions.
"My only qualm is that the set doesn't have enough reflective surfaces. Lelio is very vain. He primps and preens, and that's based on the old theatrical archetype of the Turk slayer who was very into the way his armor shined."
Barnicle helped solved the quandary with the appropriate slapstick gesture. He has given Lelio a servant who carries a portable mirror around with him.
"We're using everything as an opportunity for shtick," the director said. "This show is going to be like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello."
* "The Liar" previews Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m., at the Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. The regular run begins Thursday. Show times are Tuesday to Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. (no evening performance April 2). Ends April 2. $13-$22. (714) 497-9244.
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Barnicle's Italian Glossary for 'The Liar'