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A CurtainUp Review
The School for Wives
by Stanley H. Nemeth
The central figure of Moliere' s The School for Wives, Arnolphe, belongs to a flamboyant species of comic madman, the overweening egomaniac who seeks to correct and control existence. In his case, he likes to laugh at betrayed husbands while avoiding at all costs being cuckolded himself. To this end, he's even delayed his own marriage until old age, while he has had a convent raise as his intended wife a girl presumably obedient and wholly ignorant of the world. Part jealous Othello, part uppity Malvolio, Arnolphe in grand comic fashion —yet somewhat sadly — is in the end thwarted in his matrimonial designs by both nature and destiny.
South Coast Repertory's new production of this comedy is in all respects a grand achievement. In the great role of Arnolphe, Dakin Matthews demonstrates an unfailing ability to convey the embarrassing humanness of this comic monster. His body, face and voice alternately and convincingly suggest vulgar, if premature, triumph over his enemies, mad frustration when his obsessions receive opposition, and finally genuine pain upon realizing all his hopes are dashed. Taken in conjunction with Matthews' clarity in verse-speaking and welcome absence of clownish mugging, these strengths add up to a Moliere performance that is as good as it gets.
Completely convincing too are Emily Bergl as Agnes, Arnolphe's intended wife, an ingenue who pretty quickly catches on to her womanly powers, and Daniel Blinkoff as Horace, her naive but not foolish youthful suitor, with whom we never lose sympathy even though we laugh as Arnolphe plays upon his innocence.
The set by Darcy Scanlin and the costumes by Shigeru Yaki are knockouts. The dreams of the obsessed Arnolphe are reflected in the hanging lampshades which resemble women's skirts and in the pictures of Agnes that are pasted all over the leftside walls and receding hallway of the house where he keeps her. The intense colors of this set, and those of many of the costumes — Horace, for example, wears a bright yellow suit with turquoise accessories— underscore the surreal dimension and the attendant psychological realism this production's brilliant director, David Chambers, locates at the core of Moliere's externally "unrealistic" rhyming verse play.
The translation by Ranjit Bolt is of a piece with the directorial vision that informs this production. It's in rhyming verse like Moliere's original, yet it emphasizes, through its occasional inclusion of startling, contemporary four-letter words, that Moliere's play interiorly is dealing with the stuff and substance of a very real world . To borrow Marianne Moore's phrasings, this production shows that its author while creating "imaginary gardens" didn't neglect to put "real toads in them."
In short, this is a production that must be seen by all who value great acting and great theater.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp' s editor.
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