A ‘School for Lies’—and talent

Michiko Kitayama Skinner, who designed the elaborate costumes in "The School for Lies," adds some finishing touches to actress Devin Cherry's gown. Photos: Mike Montero/University of Miami
By Maya Bell

Michiko Kitayama Skinner, who designed the elaborate costumes in "The School for Lies," adds some finishing touches to actress Devin Cherry's gown. Photos: Mike Montero/University of Miami

A ‘School for Lies’—and talent

By Maya Bell
The Ring Theatre’s contemporary reworking of Molière’s “The Misanthrope” showcases the skills of UM’s young performers and veteran costume designers.

After nearly five weeks of rehearsals, Kevin McGuire knows every line in “The School for Lies,” yet the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre’s guest director still laughs out loud at many of the zingers in the romantic comedy that opens Thursday night. Not just because the dialogue, spoken in couplets, is uproariously funny—which it is—but because the veteran Broadway actor and director is so tickled by the evolving talent of his student cast.

“It’s the joy of watching them pull something off,” McGuire said. “I lead them down a path where they can discover what to do and when they do, it’s ‘Oh my God!’  The play is wacky and wonderful and it still amuses me. But I’m laughing about how marvelous they make it look.”

The third play in the Ring Theatre’s 80th season, playwright David Ives’ contemporary adaptation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope” is challenging on many levels, not least of all because the rhyming couplets must be delivered just so, with perfect pronunciation, enunciation, timing, and pitch. And just to complicate matters, the rhymes are in modern English—with plenty of current political references and enough big words, McGuire notes, to make the play suitable for SAT practice. Yet they are spoken in the wittiest salon of Molière’s 1666 Paris.

That’s where Celimene, a beautiful, young widow so quick with her sharp tongue she’s being sued for slander, banters with her many suitors. None really interests her, but she strings them along, hoping one has the means to help her out of her legal jam. That is until Frank, a traveler from England known for his own acerbic wit and disdain for humankind, shows up, matching her every barb. Thanks to a deliberately planted, revenge-tinged lie, Celimene is led to believe Frank has the influence to end her troubles, so she is instantly smitten.

“It’s so different than anything I’ve done,” said senior Devin Cherry, who after five musicals is portraying Celimene in her final role for the Department of Theatre Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s supposed to be conversation so we’ve talked a lot about how not to make it Dr. Suess-y. We need to make each rhyme land because that’s where the comedy is. But at the same time we have to play our intentions and our actions, while telling the story.”

Complicating Cherry’s and the entire cast’s actions are the play’s authentically extravagant 17th century costumes, made from scratch by a team led by veteran costume designer Michiko Kitayama Skinner. Fortunately for Cherry, the one-act play spans a single day, so she and most of the other eight cast members don’t have to change costumes.

Cherry does, however, belt out and dance to a rap song, no small feat in high, lace- and jewel-bedecked heels and a multilayered brocaded gown festooned with a back cape. Hidden underneath the reams of fabric is a straightjacket-like assemblage of stockings, bloomers, corset, underskirt, and panniers—a pair of saddle-bag-like hoops that flare her skirt at the hips.

As Cherry noted during her third costume fitting last week, “Once you get in, there is no getting out.”

Not so for senior Gabe Szajnert, a theater management major who decided to try out for his first UM role before graduating this spring. Instead, he landed two roles, that of Celemine’s servant and Frank’s valet, which require a flurry of lightning-quick costume, character, and diction changes.

“It’s not just like taking one shirt off and putting another one on. Each costume has three layers, and each character has his own voice and mannerisms,” said Szajnert, who credits vocal coach Jennifer Burke and his fellow student actors for helping him distinguish between the two roles. “I’m not just feeding off their characters. I’m feeding off their four years of solid voice training. I’ve learned that it’s really small things that make a big difference—like going up instead of down at the end of a sentence.”

He’s also grateful to McGuire, who starred in “Les Miserables” around the world, for knowing how to lead actors down the path of self-discovery.

“He doesn’t just tell you what to do,” Szajnert said. “He gives you the steps to grow as a character. He asks what the purpose of the character is, what his motivation is, what his history is. He allows the actor to make the choice.”

Which is exactly how McGuire says it should be and why UM’s conservatory-style theatre arts program, ranked No. 5 in the nation, is known for preparing graduates for careers in theater.

“Speaking in rhyme is really hard,” McGuire said. “You have to have enough breath to get to the end of the line so you don’t drop the line. In the beginning, they were dropping the lines all over the stage, but look at them now.

“They’re all hungry and eager and fresh and destined to do great things.”

Opening at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22, "Schools for Lies" continues at the Ring Theatre on the Coral Gables campus through Saturday, March 2, with a free "Totally Tuesday" performance for UM students with a Cane card on Tuesday, Feb. 26. For tickets or more information, visit ringtheatre.miami.edu.