School for Wives at the Loeb directed by Harold Stone '53
PUTTING ON School for Wives is like playing one of those 25-cent games in the amusement park: it looks fun and not terribly difficult, but the odds are against you if you haven't had a lot of practice.
The play seems perfect for an amateur company. Moliere's pleasantly improbable plot is simple, yet full of comic possibilities, and his wonderfully drawn characters are in typical bonne forme.
Arnolphe (Stephen Toope) is the quintessential insecure male chauvinist who wants his wife to be ignorant, simple and submissive. He fears clever, educated women, nearly all of whom, he is convinced, cheat on their husbands. So Arnolphe takes absurdly elaborate precautions to avoid being cuckolded: having adopted Agnes, the daughter of an impoverished peasant, Arnolphe has raised her in seclusion, isolated from the pernicious influences of education and interaction with intelligent people.
Of course, in Moliere, the best laid plans always go astray. Arnolphe--who has recently adopted the name Monsieur de la Souche for its noble connotations--meets Horace, the dashing young son of an old friend. Horace loses no time in asking Arnolphe for money to help him further his romantic pursuit of a beautiful young woman who has been imprisoned by a jealous old fool. You guessed it--the woman is Agnes and the old fool is M. de la Souche. The plot revolves around Arnolphe's frantic attempts to keep the persistent Horace away from his ward--a task made easier by the fact that the naive young woman tells him of Horace's plans.
Silly, non? Well, yes, but Moliere knew what he was doing--the play can make for a fun evening. Unfortunately, the Loeb production is not as good as it should be. It's not bad, just very average.
The play itself must take some of the blame. As in many of Shakespeare's tragedies, the performance of the lead actor can make or break the production. In School for Wives, the role of Arnolphe is tremendously difficult. On stage throughout most of the show, Arnolphe must almost always convey comic consternation as Horace continually foils his lovely plans. The success of several scenes depends almost solely on Arnolphe's facial expressions upon hearing Horace's descriptions of the ups and downs of his attepts to woo Agnes. Toope has the energy to play Arnolphe, but little of the control and pacing. He succumbs to the temptation--so strong in Moliere's plays--to overact. He rants too much, usually beginning his long monologues too vehemently and maintaining the same tone throughout. This inevitably becomes tedious. His grimacing is equally overdone. Toope has a face that rivals Jerry Lewis's for its malleability. He abuses this asset, however, and often seems to forcing his face into a random series of contortions.
During the rare scenes in which Toope does calm down, he shows himself to be a competent actor. Somewhere amidst all that raving and gesticulating lies a good portrayal of Arnolphe. Director Harlod Stone '53 should have toned down Toope's performance and given more attention to his pacing.
While Stone fails to control Toope carefully enough, he certainly clamps down on Lizellen La Follette, who plays the virginal Agnes. Her dull monotone and glazed stare were intended, one supposes, to convey her innocence. But we only know that she embodies purity and goodness because others characters tell us she does. Soft violin music accompanies her entrances. All La Follette's performance suggests is that Agnes lacks personality.
Most of the supporting cast fares much better. Ralph J. Zito nicely depicts his character's subtle transformation from a young rake interested only in an amourous conquest into a sicere and passionate suitor. Chrysalde (James A. Bundy), Arnolphe's friend and Moliere's obligatory voice of reason, is also pleasantly portrayed. With an agreeably light touch, Bundy successfully combines a tone of reasonableness with one of faint mockery. Christian D. Clemenson excels as the notary. Positively inflated with pomposity, he delivers Moliere's gentle (in this case) parody of complacent bureaucrats with hilarious accuracy.
The characters of Alain and Georgette give actors a chance to have fun and ham it up a bit. Michael Cantor plays Alain with appropriate dopiness. Alice Brown, however, fails to take advantage of the comic potential of Georgette, reciting her lines flatly. When she is not speaking, Brown seems to forget she is onstage and watches the antics going on about her with almost complete detachment.
DESPITE SOME FAULTY performances, the production manages to muddle through. Stone keeps the staging simple--rightly so since most of the action and movement is in the dialogue--and the show moves along quickly. The costumes and set are appropriately 18th centuryish. Richard Wilbur's excellent verse translation retains the spirit of the original text, which it follows nearly thought by thought.
But most of the credit belongs to Moliere. If the weakness of the Loeb version of School for Wives stems in part from the extreme difficulty of the important lead role, it is also the play itself which saves the evening. This shaky production would kill lesser comedies; it only wounds this one.