I really enjoy going to City Garage in Santa Monica, have done since first seeing a fascinating deconstruction of Othello. This time I wondered what would happen when they did Moliere's The School for Wives, and as usual they surprised me.
Like most of Moliere, this play makes fun of human foibles, especially those who make fun of those foibles in others. In this case, the plot deals with something especially topical, albeit via a farce which lessons the sting.
Arnolphe (Bo Roberts) is a middle aged curmudgeon who mocks husbands who allow themselves to be humiliated by their wives. He boasts to his friend Chrystalde (Troy Dunn) of his solution--he adopted a peasant girl at age four and has been grooming her as a future bride ever since.
Yeah, that is indeed almost as creepy as it sounds. Now that Agnes (Claire Pida) is of age--having been carefully taught nothing of the world, save reading the Bible and sewing--Arnolphe eagerly awaits "teaching" her how to be a good wife. The lessons he focuses upon are how to slavishly obey and serve her husband. Of course it all goes wrong, not least due to the arrival of a handsome young man named Horace (Buddy Brown). He and Agnes meet, falling head over heels at first sight.
The style prove delightful--an almost dance-like version of modern day. The acting throughout proves very good--up to and including Roberts' astonishment at how the universe doesn't do what he expects (in other words, even the most innocent and sheltered of young females never stop being human beings with their own desires and agency, IMAGINE!). The humor is nonstop, yet never bombastic (a common problem with productions of classical comedy). More, it all fits together like a watch. Nobody ever seems to be in some other production of this same play. The entire cast and crew remain on the same page.
Do I have any criticisms? Well, one person's hat kept falling off but this was opening night so I suppose the actor will use a lot more bobby pins from now on. And to be sure, while topical and insightful, this hardly counts as "great" play. More to the point, it remains a comedy--and when audiences laugh during a comedy, you know it succeeds. This show had many and different styles of laughter all through opening night.
At the same time, I liked the gentle touch in this satire. Probably the easily way to do this play would be to make Arnolphe a loathesome idiot. Under Frederique Michel's direction and Roberts performance, however, he touches our heart. He is lonely. He loves or desires and has not a clue how to get his heart's desire, making him a middle aged preteen with his first crush. Pathetic, yes, but also very much a creature of pathos. Not evil, but immature, and as a result a terrible fool (who thankfully has little power over anyone by play's end).
The School for Wives plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays (pay what you can at the door) at 3pm until April 1, 2018 at City Garage, Building T1 (across the street from the Bergemont Metro Station), 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.