From "Lysistrata" to "I Love Lucy" and beyond, the rebellion of women against self-serving male power has fueled some of the most memorable and improbable comedies of Western culture. It doesn't matter that the men in question consider themselves loving husbands, fathers or guardians: The fact that they regard women as property makes them ripe for public ridicule.
It's the special achievement of Brian Bedford's staging of a two-play compendium titled "The Moliere Comedies" at the Mark Taper Forum that the rights of women--including women every bit as silly as their men--resonate so strongly in an evening anchored persuasively in the look and style of the 1660s.
You could argue that the second half of the bill sagged badly at the Wednesday opening, but even here Bedford kept attention focused on the key issue: how easily men become delusional about the women in their lives.
Both "The School for Husbands" and "The Imaginary Cuckold" turn on the prevention of a forced, unhappy marriage and involve self-infatuated characters named Sganarelle (one urban, one rural) who become victims of their own misconceptions.
Bedford plays the city Sganarelle in "Husbands" as a nasty Parisian clone of the quasi-Puritan Malvolio in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," a guardian convinced that by imprisoning a young girl in a kind of secular convent, he can make her into the obedient wife he desires. Instead, as deftly interpreted by Anna Belknap, we watch her develop innate talents for deception and manipulation that leave him far behind.
As the country Sganarelle in "Cuckold," Bedford becomes vaguely Falstaffian--appropriate for a character with a major speech on honor that echoes Falstaff's--but too insistently ingratiating and low-key to be convincingly vengeful toward a wife he suspects of infidelity.
Yes, Moliere makes sure the audience knows that the horns of cuckoldry exist only in Sganarelle's mind--but for the play to play, adultery should at least seem possible, and the playfully crusty interaction between Bedford and Patricia Conolly makes it only a kind of tease.
Using sublime verse translations by Richard Wilbur, Bedford sets both plays on plazas backed by architectural facades designed by Ming Cho Lee. Besides actual doorways, six rectangular openings in the back walls allow a variety of entrances and exits.
But if farce often threatens to erupt, a voice of reason always intervenes. And that's because Moliere's comedies are essentially dissections of human folly that keep you laughing but inevitably end not in action but elaborate and even didactic debriefings.
So it rings false when Bedford accidentally slams into an opening door in "The School for Husbands" or when the cast snakes across the stage in a musical-comedy chain at the beginning of "The Imaginary Cuckold." Moliere isn't Moliere because of shtick or diversionary theatrics, but because he's as unyielding as any of his leading characters in spotlighting people consumed by their illusions. And those people include not only the two Sganarelles here but the two young lovers in "Cuckold," so quick to believe that they belong in a tragedy of betrayal instead of this comedy of misunderstandings.
Although the same nine actors turn up in both plays, Bedford doesn't plug them into the same kinds of roles.
So after playing the endearingly deceitful ingenue in "Husbands," Belknap is virtually unrecognizable as the frumpy, sniffling but clear-minded maid in "Cuckold."
Ned Schmidtke starts the evening as Ariste, the soul of brotherly moderation, and ends it as Gorgibus, the voice of fatherly oppression. And Katie MacNichol manages to be equally credible as Leonor, the embodiment of liberation, and Celie, a girl hopelessly enslaved to mock-heroic bombast.
A pining, handsome lover figures in each play, but Don Reilly makes Valere dashing and charismatic in the first play, while Erik Sorensen makes Lelie hopelessly fatuous in the second.
You want comic servants? Choose between the wily Jeff Klein or the whining Jerry Kernion. But there's no choice when it comes to Bedford: "Cuckold" needs a more obsessive Sganarelle, but "Husbands" offers an amazingly deep and detailed study of a man so maniacally and destructively egocentric that every woman on stage shudders when he mentions marriage and knows in her soul that he's born for horns.
"The Moliere Comedies" ("The School for Husbands" and "The Imaginary Cuckold"), Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Added performance on April 3, 2:30 p.m. No performances March 5-8. No evening performance April 7. Closes April 7. $30-$44. (213) 628-2722. Running time: 2 hours.
Brian Bedford...Sganarelle/ Sganarelle
Anna Belknap...Isabelle/Celie's maid
Patricia Conolly...Lisette/ Sganarelle's wife
Jerry Kernion...Magistrate/ Gros-Rene
Don Reilly...Valere/A male relative
of Sganarelle's wife
Ned Schmidtke...Ariste/ Gorgibus
By Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Brian Bedford. Period movement and choreography by Art Manke. Set design by Ming Cho Lee. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Hair and wig design by Carol F. Doran. Lighting by Robert Wierzel. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Original music by Karl Fredrik Lundeberg. Associate director: Robert Beard. Production stage manager: Mary K. Klinger.