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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Robustly Entertaining School For Wives
at Shakespeare Theatre

School For Wives
Kristie Dale Sanders, Bruce Cromer and Greg Jackson
Early on in Moliere's 16th-century classic The School for Wives, the middle-aged bachelor Arnolphe is relating his intention to marry his 18-year-old ward Agnes to his friend Chrysalde. He had placed Agnes in a convent when she was four, instructing the nuns to keep her ignorant of all worldly knowledge. As he prepares to marry her, Arnolphe has moved Agnes to a house where she is under the supervision of Alain and Georgette, his two simpleton servants. Arnolphe is smugly self-satisfied in his certainty that Agnes' complete innocence has rendered her incapable of cuckolding him. Unbeknownst to Arnolphe, Agnes has a young suitor, Hector, to whom she is already in thrall. Not knowing that Arnolphe is the "old fool" who has tried to lock Agnes away, Horace informs him of his courtship of Agnes, and The School for Wives is off to the races.

The School for Wives deftly combines wit and sophistication with farcical, slapstick comedy. Director Brian B. Crowe is tirelessly inventive in finding comic bits which emphasize the latter. Greg Jackson and Kristie Dale Sanders as the servants, Alain and Georgette, perform the bulk of the slapstick comedy with aplomb, garnering strong audience laughter and appreciation for their energetic efforts. Sanders has been gifted with a face capable of delightfully comedic expressiveness.

However, what is most impressive is the totally delightful English verse translation of Richard Wilbur. It is mellifluous poetry of such high wit and sophistication that I found myself wondering if it could outshine the original French. Such excessive notions aside, it is accurate to note that Wilbur's superlative translations of Moliere's plays have restored the latter to favor on American stages. They are considered outstanding in their ability to supply rhymed couplets which reproduce the flow and rhythm of Moliere in a language SO tonally different than French. Despite the enhanced farcical tone of his production, Crowe never sacrifices the wit and clarity of the writing.

Particularly impressive is Bruce Cromer's Arnolphe. While he performs to solid comic effect as part of a clown trio with Jackson and Sanders (and makes a memorable final comic exit), Cromer avoids the common error of making Arnolphe more of a fool than he is in the text. Surely Arnolphe is ridiculous and foolish, but here he is also human and believable. Cromer plays Arnolphe as a nerdy, unromantic type who would not have had any success with the opposite sex when he was twenty. As he blathers on with his silly notions about keeping Agnes innocent and uneducated, it seems that his real motivation might be his fear that only such a girl would marry him.

Erin Partin is an appealing Agnes who early on exposes the native intelligence which trumps her lack of formal learning. Jon Barker retains a stolid mock seriousness amid the comic mayhem. Scott Whitehead as Chrysalde gets the play's best lines speaking wisdom to Arnolphe's foolishness. Whitehead's line readings are swift (all of my efforts to write down his lines ended in failure), yet clear, convincing and musical to the ear. I would note that when Whitehurst appeared in the brief role of the notary, I briefly wondered if Chrysalde had disguised himself as part of the plot. It would have made more sense for one of the actors who does not appear until the final scene to have doubled in that role.

The house front and garden set by John Hobbie is attractive and most playable, and contributes to the productions humor as it is turned into a fortress. Emily Pepper's colorful costumes are first rate.

Shakespeare Theatre's The School for Wives is an intelligent and rambunctious production of a collaboration between two outstanding poets working across three centuries for our pleasure and delectation.

The School for Wives continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7:30 p.m. – except 5/24) through July 26, 2009 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

The School for Wives by Moliere; English Verse Translation by Richard Wilbur; Directed by Brian B. Crowe

Cast
Chrysalde, a gentleman………………..Scott Whitehurst
Arnolphe, a gentleman…………………….Bruce Cromer
Alain, servant………………………………..Greg Jackson
Georgette, servant…………………Kristie Dale Sanders
Agnes, a ward……………………………………Erin Partin
Horace, a suitor…………………………………Jon Barker
Notary…………………………………… Scott Whitehurst
Orontes, father to Horace……………………Daren Kelly
Enrique, a wealthy gentleman……………..Jim Hopkins


Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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