“I have in my pocket a book of no small fame, from which you’ll learn the office of a wife,” says Arnolphe, the outlandishly idiotic gentleman of leisure, to his intended betrothed in Molière’s “The School for Wives.” Agnes, the charming girl Arnolphe has kept hidden from civilization, then proceeds to read aloud a list of maxims which dictate the proper behavior for a lady in wedlock. The production of “Wives,” which opened last night on the main stage of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, brings to mind some maxims on theater itself: Comedy is harder than drama. Farce is dead. Centuries-dead playwrights can’t induce laughter. Although these thoughts may nag audience members once the show is over, Richard Palmer’s faithful and intermittently amusing adaptation is entertaining enough to put such bothersome scrutiny to rest while the lights are up.
“Wives,” translated into beautiful verse by poet laureate Richard Wilbur, is the story of Arnolphe (played by Alec Anderson ’11), a foppish fellow with a knack for mocking husbands whose wives have gone astray. When he decides to wed, Arnolphe whisks a young girl away to a convent to be taught that breaking the covenant of marriage is the worst sin of all. With such a carefully planned scheme, things are bound to go wrong, starting with Arnolphe’s friend Horace having a love affair with the young girl. The madcap antics that follow are widely regarded as some of Molière’s best comedy, although the 17th century convention of long, expository passages — and the constraints placed by Wilbur’s translating the play into rhyming couplets — make “Wives” an outstanding work to read, but less so to see performed.
This is hardly the fault of anyone in the production, however. Palmer has crafted a near-perfect period rendition of the play, with a deliberate eye for historical accuracy. Social graces are observed without fail, making Arnolphe’s increasing frustration disrupt the delicate structure of manners to great effect. The physical comedy, manifested by Arnolphe’s two servants Alain (played by Andrew Collie ’11) and Georgette (played by Francesca Chilcote ’11), is preserved expertly, both by actor and director choice, with the cleverly choreographed stumbling providing some of the evening’s biggest laughs. The wit present throughout the text, although sometimes muddled by over performance, is left intact by the capable cast.
In his role as plotter and misogynist extraordinaire, Anderson’s expressiveness is captivating. His face, from the middle of the play on, becomes less of a window into Arnolphe’s predicament and more a vessel for how many looks of utter pain and hopelessness one can portray. Anderson, in a spin on the casual vanity he brought to the role of Oscar Wilde in last semester’s “Gross Indecency,” becomes an inversion of that over-privileged personality type, with all of Wilde’s superior attitude and none of the wit. Angela Delgado ’10 as Agnes, the supposedly ignorant bride, is both empty-headed and eminently likable. Collie and Chilcote are endlessly amusing as the pair of simple-minded servants, tumbling and beating one another into submission for laughs, and more often than not succeeding. Jason Blackwell ’10, in the oracular part of Chrysalde, takes what would be an otherwise sermonizing part and injects a wry intelligence into the character who forewarns Arnolphe of his inevitable failure. And Nick Martin ’13 as the would-be lover Horace does an admirable job, though when Martin speaks of love, Molière’s words sound hollow.
The technical crew has also done outstanding work in transporting the stage to 1600s France. Matthew Allar’s set is detailed and lush, providing plenty of doors and windows for slamming, and an all-purpose scene without a need for changing venues and disrupting the flow of the comedy. The costumes of theatre professor Patricia Wesp are a treat for the eyes, and resplendent in aristocratic excess (with the exception of the servants, of course). The lighting, designed by Cameron Rust ’11 is evocative and ambient, and sets the mood for a night of silly entertainments.
What keeps “The School for Wives” from being the laugh riot it undoubtedly was hundreds of years ago is not a lack of talent in any aspect of the production. Rather, it is comedy’s naturally rapid degradation that keeps this able group from leaving its audience with sore sides. Molière’s work remains a piece of brilliant verse and theatrical tradition thanks to Wilbur’s translation, but when performed as comedy, the play has unfortunately lost much of its luster.
“The School for Wives” will be performed on PBK’s main stage April 22 to 24 at 8 p.m., and April 25 at 2 p.m.