- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Did he or didn’t he? If you like a touch of Shakespearean mystery in your drama, check out “Double Falsehood,” a play of murky historical origin about betrayal, star-crossed lovers and hidden identities.

The flowery language of the play is so accessible, in the charming production that opened Tuesday night at Classic Stage Company (CSC), that you may believe you’ve suddenly begun thinking in Shakespeare’s Jacobean English.

But your modern ears deceive you, because this play was actually written in the 18th century by Lewis Theobald. He insisted that his 1727 play was an adaptation from a lost manuscript of “Cardenio,” written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, but scholars scoffed at that idea for the next nearly three centuries.

Whoever wrote it _ and Shakespearean experts continue to debate the origin, even though a reputable publisher, Arden Shakespeare, recently put its seal of approval on the play _ the CSC production is very entertaining. Director Brian Kulick takes a lighthearted, at times tongue-in-cheek approach, arranging his excellent cast with care on the small, thrust CSC stage that is nearly empty. Hanging carpets at the rear serve as the only scenery, while a few onstage carpets are constantly rearranged to indicate different locations.

The language of “Double Falsehood” does sound like the Bard might have written some of the verse, maybe “Shakespeare lite.” Familiar plot ingredients include a lovelorn wretch wandering mad in the wilderness; a wronged woman in self-exile, disguised as a man; a rustic location complete with shepherds; and a mix of domineering fathers, true lovers torn apart, a backstabbing “friend,” and a pair of night-and-day brothers, one good and one thoroughly evil.

One luckless heroine, aptly named Violante, is raped and then scorned by Henriquez, the man she loves. MacKenzie Meehan is credible and appealing as the wronged Violante, who steals away from home in dishonor, disguised as a page.

The villain with no soul is played with joyous abandon by Slate Holmgren, who visibly revels in Henriquez’s continual betrayals of friends and lovers. Some of the funniest scenes in the play occur when Henriquez uses tortured logic _ and Holmgren physically contorts himself with the thought process _ to convince himself yet again that his latest evil deed is really a good thing.

Clayton Apgar as stalwart Julio and Hayley Treider as beleaguered Leonora make an adorable pair of star-crossed young lovers. Leonora’s father, Don Bernardo, is played with blustering aplomb by the very able Jon Devries, while Philip Goodwin has equal gravitas as both a Duke and as Julio’s father. Bryce Gill rounds out this talented cast, portraying the good brother Roderick.

Oana Botez-Ban provides scenic design and the beautiful costumes, which include sleek, modern tuxedoes, lovely gowns and rustic-looking leather jackets.

The play provides a fun opportunity for comparing new verses with some of Shakespeare’s famous rhymes, or, if that’s too rigorous, simply enjoying this strangely familiar, yet new comedy.

“Double Falsehood” is in a very limited run through April 3.

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Online: http://www.classicstage.org