I knew we were in for a fun evening when the audience laughed within the first minute of The School for Wives. They kept laughing throughout the rest of the play. Understandable when you consider the quality of the script, the direction, and the acting.
Moliere wrote The School for Wives the year he married a much younger woman – 1662. He was satirizing the limited education and restricted prospects of well-to-do young women. It’s interesting to speculate how his marriage influenced his play.
This production’s script is a translation by David Whiteley of Plosive Productions which, with SevenThirty Productions, are the play’s co-producers. Whiteley has written a “present-tense” translation of Moliere’s satire, retaining the story and the time period but updating the dialogue to suit “a 21st century Canadian ear, tongue, and palate”. As Whiteley writes in the program, “Modern sarcasm displaces classical irony. Pop culture references displace grand oration.” Modernizing the language of a well-known classic is risky, but this translation works well. Most important, the satire still hits the mark because the target of Moliere’s satire – the sexist attitudes and threat of violence towards women who “don’t behave” – is as real today as it was 352 years ago. Any doubt this is true? Pick up today’s newspaper.
The director is John P. Kelly of SevenThirty Productions. As we know from other plays he has directed at The Gladstone such as The 39 Steps and Noises Off, Kelly is adept at delivering the most delicious comedy. In The School for Wives, he juggles witty repartee, broad and sometimes crude humour, the occasional dreadful “groaner”, and dumb-show interludes. And he keeps the audience laughing in delight.
He also brings out the best in his actors. This production has a very fine cast. All roles are well-acted but the standouts are Andy Massingham and Tess McManus.
Massingham plays Arnolphe, the middle-aged man who wants the comforts of marriage but who is in terror of being cuckolded. To ensure he is never deceived by his wife, he declares “I’ll marry a fool so I won’t be made a fool.” He wants an ignorant, submissive young woman to wed, so he obtains a 4-year old girl – Agnes – and has her raised with little education by cloistered nuns. Now Agnes is 18 and ready for Arnolphe to wed.
McManus plays Agnes as a credible naif who falls head over heels in love with a handsome young man, Horace (Drew Moore). She’s a sweet young innocent whom we can actually believe when she says, after a romantic meeting with Horace, that “I felt warm in more places than I knew were there!”.
The rest of the cast – Moore (ah, callow youth!), Whiteley (very droll!), David Benedict Brown (a superb oaf!), and Catriona Leger (wickedly mischievous!) – are very fine indeed.
All are aided and abetted by excellent costumes and wigs (Patrice-Ann Forbes), as well as a serviceable set and discrete lighting, both from David Magladry.