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STAGE REVIEW : 'School for Wives' a Painless Experience


EAGLE ROCK — "The School for Wives," Moliere's stinging comedy about a possessive guardian foiled by efforts to keep his young ward sweetly innocent and virtuous until she's old enough to marry him, awakens laughter but not the requisite pain in the Occidental Theatre Festival production at the Remsen Bird Hillside Bowl.

The festival, which closes Aug. 28, has produced a rewarding summer of diverse work, from "Blood Knot" to "Oklahoma!" Curiously, the one play the Hillside Repertory Company had been expected to pull off with aplomb is "The School for Wives."

Until recently, the festival had been steeped in classical theater. Both "School for Wives" director Christopher Shelton and actor Alan Freeman, who plays Moliere's fool Arnolphe, had distinguished themselves with Moliere before.

But despite sticking to the confectionary ribbons and frills approach, there's something almost vaudevillian, too forced and broad, about this "School for Wives" to suggest bourgeois 17th-Century France.

The flavor of the play is indeed mirrored in secondary achievements--the guardian's towering mansion, the costumes, the elaborate bowing. And three supporting performances are on target (Pamela Winslow as the love-smitten young girl, Tony Rayner as the dashing swain who sweeps her off her feet, and Tim Shelton, the director's cousin, as a bemused aristocrat). But they are not enough, and the result is an evening much longer than it should be--tolerable but not biting and tangy.

As the wretched, arrogant middle-aged bachelor who keeps the flower of his lust and love under lock and key until she's old enough to go to bed with him, Freeman is all buffoonery. That's OK up to a point because Arnolphe (originally played by Moliere himself when the play premiered in 1662) is ludicrous. But that laughter should also be laced with pain, because the comic base of the play is complex.

Having failed to prime his ward, Agnes, to be the perfect wife (as in ignorant) and having to endure her romance right under his nose, the humiliated Arnolphe literally falls on his hands and knees, crying and pleading for her return.

It's a tortured scene and reflects Moliere's own troubled marriage with a capricious woman 20 years younger (Armande Bejart, the daughter of his former mistress). The autobiographical underpinnings are fascinating, too, because they demonstrate how a great playwright was able to objectify his personal life and turn it into comedic art.

For a moment, with Freeman sobbing and groveling before the dismayed Winslow, the laughter is broken and Freeman captures our sympathy, if not the pain of the situation. Quickly, though, Freeman is back to his ravings, which grow less comical as time wears on.

The play's most difficult and physical scene, a ladder-and-hook/window number that requires Freeman to acrobatically tumble out of a second-story window, is triumphantly staged. But other elements are shoddy: Arnolphe's costume is dullish brown and baggy. And his wig is not the coif of an aristocratic gentleman.

As for his dim-headed servants (Jamie Angell and Nina Henderson), the pair way overplay the intended slapstick. Henderson even sports a gap tooth and a creaky strut that suggests a character out of "Li'l Abner," not "School for Wives."

"School for Wives," Occidental Theatre Festival, Remsen Bird Hillside Bowl, Occidental College campus, Eagle Rock, Friday, Sunday and Aug. 27. Summer repertory festival ends Aug. 29. $8-$16. (213) 259-2922. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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