The Molière Comedies
Also see Sharon's review of David and Lisa
The world of Molière is a simple world, where a man's greatest fear is his wife's infidelity. As translated by Richard Wilbur, it is an easily-accessible world, where the verse in which people speak does not present a barrier to comprehension, but an added opportunity for humor in rhyme. As directed by Brian Bedford, it is an uncomplicated world, where recognizable characters work their way through various misunderstandings, and ultimately end up getting exactly what they deserve. It is a delightful world, which provides a pleasant escape for a few hours, safe in the knowledge that nothing startling or unusual will occur.
The first of the two plays in this double-bill, The School for Husbands, is the better of the two. Bedford plays Sganarelle, who is guardian to a young and beautiful ward, Isabelle, who he wishes to marry. Sganarelle has attempted to mold Isabelle into his image of the perfect wife - a servile, practical woman who never leaves the house without a chaperone. The lovely Isabelle, played with innocent high-pitched sweetness by Anna Belknap, has nonetheless managed to catch the eye of the handsome Valère. Don Reilly's Valère, as prodded on by his servant, is manly enthusiasm personified, and it is clear to everyone in the theatre, except Sganarelle, that Valère is the right husband for Isabelle. Sganarelle's self-satisfaction that he is raising Isabelle properly is ultimately the source of his downfall, as Valère and Isabelle use the overconfident Sganarelle as the unwitting messenger of their secret plans to marry.
Sganarelle's inflated ego is also the source of the comedy in The School for Husbands, as it is very clear that this pompous, domineering egotist deserves to be taken down a peg. And what better way for him to learn his lesson than to lose his intended bride by his own misguided attempts to keep his hold on her. With every twist of Valère and Isabelle's plot, Sganarelle remains clueless, blinded by his certainty that he has created in Isabelle a perfect, contended wife. His sly asides to the audience are hilarious, because we know how very wrong he is. Everyone is in on the joke but Sganarelle, and he is clearly deserving of this position, because if he had only wavered in his resolve for a moment, he would not have been the butt of the joke.
The School for Husbands is partnered with The Imaginary Cuckold in this evening of Molière, and the latter is not nearly as funny. Here, Bedford again plays a Sganarelle, but this Sganarelle is not nearly as deliciously dislikeable as the Sganarelle of the first play. The Imaginary Cuckold is a comedy of errors: one woman loses a locket containing a picture of her lover; another woman finds it; everyone misunderstands everyone else; and all of a sudden two couples are at risk, as each of the four thinks their partner has been unfaithful. But it is all much ado about nothing, and, with the help of a fast-thinking servant, all the mistakes are unraveled and everybody goes away happy. Where The School for Husbands draws its comedy from a sublimely foolish main character, The Imaginary Cuckold has no such wellspring, and instead must derive its humor from the comic overacting of its stock characters. Thus, a young lady sighs and wails uncontrollably when ordered to marry an ugly man she does not love. It's funny, but it isn't the sort of plot-driven humor that comes from watching the evil Sganarelle of The School for Husbands become the agent of his own downfall.
Bedford is so in tune with Molière's verse, one suspects that if you met him on the street, he would naturally speak it. None of the rest of the players are quite in his league; every now and again one of them slips into sing-songing the rhyming text; and sometimes a performer, knowing he or she is playing a stock character, simply falls into caricature. Were Bedford not acting in this production, it would be a fairly humorous The School for Husbands with a completely forgettable The Imaginary Cuckold. With him, The School for Husbands is an opportunity to see Molière performed by someone who knows how to do it, and unabashedly plays this comedy for all it's worth.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director, Charles Dillingham, Managing Director, Robert Egan, Producing Director presents The Molière Comedies. Translated by Richard Wilbur; Directed by Brian Bedford. Set Design by Ming Cho Lee; Costume Design by Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel; Sound Design by Jon Gottlieb; Original Music Composed by Karl Fredrik Lundeberg; Hair and Wig Design by Carol F. Doran. Associate Director Robert Beard; Period Movement and Choreography by Art Manke; Casting by Amy Lieberman, C.S.A. and Jay Binder, C.S.A. Production Stage Manager Mary K Klinger; Stage Manager David S. Franklin.
The School for Husbands
The Imaginary Cuckold
The Molière Comedies played at the Mark Taper Forum through April 7, 2002. For information, see http://www.taperahmanson.com