Dallas Theater Center’s The School for Wives by Molière on stage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater is director Kevin Moriarty’s fun and fluffy counterpoint to his dramatic production of Medea, played by the same cast in their basement space in repertory performances. It functions as a theatrical chaser working best when you don’t really think about it too deeply. Molière’s intended targets of scorn have so changed that the play that is left sings only when it’s silly and sinks when it’s serious.
Fortunately, Chamblee Ferguson, the silliest of Dallas’ favorite theatrical sons, anchors the production as Arnolphe, the rich man with a rash fear of being cuckolded. Convinced that the smarter wife is surer to stray, he has arranged for his ward, (Morgan Lauré), to be raised from the age of four in total ignorance, ensuring she will be less likely to cheat on him. When the show begins on the colorful two-story set courtesy of designer Jo Winiarski, she’s just come of age.
What presumably was a criticism of well-to-do families under-educating their daughters could come off as ISIS-level extremism were it not for Ferguson’s exaggerated manner and added physical antics for which he is truly gifted, yet very judicious. Despite being draped in a comedy-sapping brown suit by designer Jennifer Caprio, he manages to add comedic flourishes precisely when needed.
Along the same lines, Chris Hury and Liz Mikel emerge at perfectly opportune intervals as Arnolphe’s Tweedledee and Tweedledumette servants. Mikel’s wide-eyed intensity and Hury’s slack-jawed squint prove invaluable additions to the production and plot. Arnolphe hired dim servants so that Agnès would not learn anything from them, naturally.
Don’t worry. The complicated plot is clearly laid out in lots of direct address by Arnolphe and in conversations with his friend Chrysalde played by Kieran Connolly, who delivers the rhyming iambic pentameter in text so tidily that it’s almost musical. Where Ferguson, Hury and Mikel get most of their mileage from physicality, for Connolly it’s all about the text. In any case, these four keep a heightened approach to the play. Not so much, with the young lovers, Horace (Daniel Duque-Estrada) and Agnès (Morgan Lauré). They flirt with realism as much as they flirt with each other.
Horace, being the son of a friend of Arnolphe, confides that he has designs on Agnès, unaware that Arnolphe has more designs than he could imagine. Aided by the convenient contrivance of Arnolphe’s recent name change, Horace doesn’t know that he is constantly spilling the beans to the gentleman from whom he wants to steal Agnès.
This situation provides the best and worst parts of the evening. The best comes from Arnolphe enlisting the aid of his servants in thwarting the lovers’ rendezvous. The show gains comedic momentum as this provides for lots of clowning fodder for these three. The momentum is all but halted, however, when Arnolphe, alerted to the potential undoing of his plot, has Agnès read aloud from a book of a wife’s virtues. Where Lauré’s Agnès has been slightly weighty for the farce (excepting an excellent monologue she delivered concerning her initial wooing), here, director Moriarty allows her to slip into a completely natural delivery. The show loses its lightness as it gains the weight of the real world. It’s enough to make the audience begin to think—and that’s the worst thing that could happen.
Taken lightly, this show is just convoluted. Any deeper and Arnolphe’s plans are creepy. Like the cigarette smoke wafting out over the audience, it looks exotic onstage but as the people around you begin to sputter and cough, it becomes real. If it’s true that “it’s all fun and games ‘till someone gets hurt,” reminding us of the hurt that ends the fun and games. Fortunately, the intermission allows the audience to forget.
The second act is an avalanche of comedic complications, plot payoffs and a finale that brings Sally Nystuen Vahle onstage (fresh from playing Medea) as Angelique in a classic Molière family coincidence culmination. There’s a fight, a chase and pies, all sequentially and simultaneously. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s what makes it fun.
Maybe it’s the farce or maybe it’s the folks in the show, but everything works out in the end, leaving the audience without a worry in their head.
Except for who is going to do all that laundry?
» Click here to read our review of Medea