SCHOOL FOR WIVES: Rip-Snorting Classical Hoot!

by Terry Stern

Maria Panvini, Stephen Bonnell and Tim Rinehart in a scene from STAGES at Camden County College's THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES running in Blackwood, NJ.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was a very funny man. Living a short but successful life from January 15, 1622 to February 17, 1673, we know him better by his pen name, Moliere. THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES was his 1662 return to a theme which had won him great favor the previous year with his School for Husbands: the folly of jealousy in love.

Moliere’s comedy is strongly influenced by his great love of commedia dell’arte, the late Italian Renaissance comic theatre style. He is a master of comic types. Arnolphe is the pompous middle-aged fool so wrapped up in his own peculiar logic that he is totally bewildered when his contrivances unravel as they collide with the real world.

Stephen Bonnell gives us a classic old fool with a twist: he steps tantalizingly close to cattiness. This allows him a pleasing pantheon of sneers with which to delight us as the plot unfolds. There is his lovely smug sneer, his warm-beer bewildered sneer, and his liver-and-marshmallows defeated sneer to name but a few. He has choral sneers with his friend, Chrysalde. Thank you, Mr. Bonnell, for a fine anchor to this furiously funny production.

Agnes is the sweet young thing. Played to a grand comic shine by Melissa Rittman, she snaps across the stage with energetic, bawdy innocence. Sheltered from an early age by her guardian, Arnolphe, she has been purposely kept in total ignorance of anything not related to the cloistered, distaff existence he has planned for her. Ms. Rittmann is a perfect Penelope Trueheart, the ripe peach striving to stay on the tree as she’s told but yearning for the picker’s pluck and not willing to wait, no matter what they said at the convent.

In steps Horace, given to us as the perfect youth by Ian Taylor. Heroically smiling in confident self-satisfaction, Mr. Taylor gives us a Horace who is always nobly running somewhere. At first sight, Horace and Agnes are in love and undergo great pains to be together, none of which you want to miss. You certainly do not want to miss Mr. Taylor’s dying twice for love. He was not the only one on the floor at that point. Half the audience was there, too, holding our sides. The other half was laughing too hard to fall down.

Filling out the farce are the rascally servants, Alain and Georgette, played by Tim Rinehart and Maria Panvini like a top-billed Vaudeville comedy team. Rinehart & Panvini give us comic timing like championship mixed doubles, knocking their play about with total commitment to every whacky choice they make.

And then there are more minor characters like Chrysalde, Arnolphe’s long-time friend who warns the jealous guardian against his folly. Chryslde is given to us with snide urbanity by Tim Rinehart.

Tim Rinehart? The one who is fabulous as Alain? Yes, he doubles as Chrysalde and plays such distinct characters that the only clue there was to his double role was that Chrysalde was wearing knee pads but was doing no falling. Then I realized that Alain and Chrysalde were of very similar build. Then I checked the program.

Mr. Bonnell and Mr. Rinehart are at their sneering, condescending best in their common scenes, bouncing the subject of cuckoldry back and forth like a tired mouse just wishing for the end already. Boastful condescension abounds in elegant sufficiency. These two elevate the sneer to the art it was always meant to be.

The actors not mentioned by name here are omitted for want of space, not praiseworthy performances. Each deserves a paragraph. The entire cast is to be roundly appreciated for its fine comic timing, its ability to play physical comedy and its mastery of classic French comic style, flowing, posing and mugging about the set in full extension. Vocal and physical interpretations are energetic, whimsically stylized and comically insouciant.

And many, many thanks for the ability to render a play written in rhymed couplets as something other than a series of literary speed bumps. Rhyme is harder to play than you might think, and all of them can play it.

The set is beautiful, simple and versatile. The costumes show marvelous detail. Sets and costumes are stand-outs, but, happily, are combined with such stand-out performances and staging that, well, they don’t. Stand out. They support the motion and build of the play seamlessly and with eminent skill.

It is not a perfect production. Opening night takes its toll in glitches and lines suddenly just a little beyond memory’s reach. And the acoustics are slightly hot in the theatre. There’s an echo which actually makes it harder to understand an actor the more he or she projects and enunciates. For those reasons, I might have missed a major plot point regarding Arnolphe’s double identity had I not known it was coming.

And for those reasons, the production takes a single strike, by which I mean that the unmitigated appreciation and enjoyment the director, cast and crew deserved for their fine work was dulled one strike’s worth by an audience sometimes not fully at ease and wondering if everything were going right.

But I can guarantee that by the time you see it, most of these things will have worked their way out. You will see a better performance than I did, and I’d see this one again any time. This production makes classic French farce an accessible commodity and gives the belly quite a workout. Do not see this show if you’re trying to stay angry. But if you’re not, get down to Lincoln Hall and see this remarkable fulfillment of comic vision.

Moliere’s death is as legendary as his plays. Having contracted what was likely tuberculosis in his younger years, he was, ironically, playing in The Imaginary Invalid at the age of 52 when he collapsed in a fit of bloody coughing on the stage. Recovering, he insisted upon finishing the performance. When curtain rang down, he collapsed in another fit, went into a coma and never regained consciousness. Not quite comic, but definitely an actor’s exit.

SCHOOL FOR WIVES, many say, was his finest. STAGES at Camden County College struts it proudly; sneering and wooing us with promise of precision into elegantly riotous and most welcome satisfaction. It is an intimate theatre. See the show. Buy tickets in advance.

by Moliere
Adapted by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Marjorie Sokoloff
December 2-10, 2011
STAGES at Camden County College
The Little Theatre
Lincoln Hall
College Drive, Blackwood NJ
856-227-7200 ext. 4737

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