Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Evening in Central Park: Extant Arts Company presents Molière's "The School for Wives" at the Mineral Springs

This evening we had the pleasure of seeing the Extant Arts Company's utterly charming and extremely funny production of Molière's The School for Wives with a cast filled with skilled comic performers, led by the rubber-faced clown David Berent as Arnolphe.
Directed by Greg Taubman, this fast-moving adaptation, translated so gorgeously by Ranjit Bolt (first produced by London's The Peter Hall Company in 1997 under the direction of the great Peter Hall) that it makes Molière's rhymed verse seem totally natural and possessed of wonderful pleasures in English, especially when employed by the expert nine actors in the Extant Arts' ensemble tonight.
While the audience sat on a giant gray outcropping of rock (boulder? we should have paid more attention in geology), the characters appeared in a kind of natural stage shut off from the hubbub in the nearby Sheep Meadow, Le Pain Quotidian, and other parts of Central Park on a weekend. This was a great setting for what proved to be a witty, laugh-out-loud performance of Molière's comedy.
Arnolphe is a man with a pathological fear of being cuckolded and an outsized contempt for husbands who are cuckholded. Feeling that a wife who's an ignorant idiot would be less likely to stray, he takes an orphaned girl as his ward and places her in an isolated house without any real education at all. Arnolphe plans to marry Agnes, whom he thinks will be too stupid to cheat on him because it just wouldn't have ever crossed her simple mind.
Unfortunately for Arnolphe, Agnes -- delightfully played by a sprightly, well-cast Jocelyn Vammer -- meets Horace, the confident, handsome son of his old friend, who doesn't know the girl he pines after is Arnolphe's intended bride. Arnolphe can't compete with youth, passion and (it seems) true love; Agnes is not as stupid as Arnolphe thinks -- the playwright seems to be saying no woman could be -- and, well, as in any farce, complications ensue.
Although there's plenty of wit in the lines of gorgeous text -- we'd thought Richard Wilbur had done a nice verse translation, but Ranjit Bolt's is truly splendid, allowing the actor to move with ease through the rhyming dialogue -- and lots of amazing physical comedy on the part of the principals, especially David Berent (as the play went on, he got sweatier and more disheveled. That was partly the result of the heat and humidity, but though the actor may have been more physically uncomfortable, this only added to the audience's fun at seeing Arnolphe get his comeuppance and perhaps learn his lesson.
Also amazingly adept at physical comedy were the acrobatic and very funny pair playing the married couple who are Arnolphe's servants and ineptly in charge of keeping Agnes away from the world's temptations. Nika Ezell Pappas as Georgette and Zane Johnston as Alain work together, and with the other actors, in precision that is as taut as their actions are loose-limbed and their expressions are comically and swiftly varied. They add a lot to the fun of this show, which is staged without a slack moment by director Greg Taubman.
Molière’s comedies seem to work as well as Shakespeare's in outdoor productions -- we also really enjoyed the Bent Quill Players' A Doctor in Spite of Himself last year in Prospect Park -- but a lot depends on comic timing and natural delivery of the lines, originally written in seventeenth century French. We had both in the Extant Arts Company's performance.
David Berent makes the sexist, arrogant fool Arnolphe into someone totally loveable, and that trick may be the key to making the unfolding events in The School for Wives a pleasure to watch. He avoids the mistake of turning Arnolphe into a buffoon; Berent's character is extremely complex and ultimately sympathetic. It's hard not to feel pity for his unfolding nightmare as he not only has to witness his own horns about to appear, he's actually obliged to facilitate his own downfall and help Horace, played with somewhat dim but noble fortitude and vigor by Paulo Quiros.
As the worldly, philosophical Chrysalde, Andy James Hoover -- arguing with Arnolphe at every turn as Chrysalde favors a sophisticated, tolerant approach to being cuckolded -- delivers some of the play's most trenchant social critiques.
The others in the cast -- Yvvone Cone as the notary, Jeffrey Coyne as Oronte, Fernando Gamarra as Enrique -- are mostly there to move the plot along, but they manage to imbue their characters with enough individuality and personality so that this School for Wives seems a real, if highly stylized, world.
During the second act, after a short intermission -- very welcome for some of us with certain issues, and a rarity in outdoor productions -- it began to rain. First a drop that you couldn't be sure was anything, then a drizzle, then more steadily. But we were determined even if we got soaked, we weren't leaving as long as the play went on. And not one audience member moved as the rain fell.
Fortunately, it was a short passing shower that faded within about ten or twelve minutes, but a downpour couldn't have dampened our enthusiasm for this jewel-like interpretation of Molière, produced by Kate Stahl, with luscious costume design by Arnold Buseo. Katey Howett was stage manager and Torrence O. Browne production assistant. By the comedy's inevitable and satisfying conclusion, what we'd seen felt magical.
"Beneath the facade of a seventeenth-century farce," one critic wrote of The School for Wives, "there is an inevitable and quite extraordinary contemporary resonance about male-female relationships and a multiplicity of interpretive possibilities." Extant Arts Company made those possibilities come alive in this beautiful production, and we are really grateful we got to witness it.

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