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It's Like Training for the Olympics

Dakin Matthews has been preparing all his life for a grueling, rhyming role in South Coast Rep's staging of 'The School for Wives.'

January 06, 2002|MIKE BOEHM | Times Staff Writer

The Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 ushered Dakin Matthews onto the Southern California theater scene; since then, the Bay Area transplant has won plaudits as one of the Southland's most learned and devoted explorers of classic plays.

While working at the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, the Globe Theatres in San Diego, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, and with his own small classic theater, the Antaeus Company in North Hollywood, the former Shakespeare professor has established himself as a Renaissance man of the stage: actor, director, translator, teacher, playwright and manager.

Now, at 61, Matthews is taking on what he regards as his own Olympic acting event. At South Coast Repertory, he is playing Arnolphe, the haplessly obsessed, female-fearing comic butt of Moliere's 1662 classic, "The School for Wives." It is a huge part--840 lines in rhyming couplets. Arnolphe is onstage for 32 of the 34 scenes, reports director David Chambers, and many of his speeches go on for a page or more.

South Coast is using Englishman Ranjit Bolt's translation, first staged in 1997 by director Peter Hall in a production that had a six-month run in London's West End. Chambers is setting South Coast's "School for Wives" in the 1890s because "I think 17th century France is really another planet" and he doesn't want any sense of archaism or foreignness to keep today's audiences from picking up on the enduring psychological currents in the play.

With his round build, the gently spoken Matthews doesn't look as if he has been in training. But he sees Arnolphe, the largest part in his career, as a peak test of what he has learned in 35 years of professional acting.

"It's like somebody who trains to be an athlete all of his life, and somebody says, 'You're going to run the mile for us in the Olympics,'" Matthews said in a recent interview at South Coast Repertory. "The part takes enormous skills. A prodigious memory, lightning-fast comedy skills, and the skill to take a passage this long"--he holds his hands a foot apart--"and know that it's not just one sentence after another, but that it actually has a shape as a larger piece of word-music. It's not enough to make every line clear; you must also know how every line fits into that shape."

Chambers notes that many of those long speeches are emotional roller coasters in which Arnolphe moves rapidly from desperation to rage to antic determination. "Any actor can go from quiet to loud; this role takes enormously rapid internal adjustments to make it have any kind of truth."

Meeting such a standard would seem to entitle an actor to considerable bragging rights. But for Matthews, the best way to bring the blustery but insecure Arnolphe to life--with all his jealously scheming, control-grasping outrageousness and pathos--is to submerge his own ego.

"As you get older as an actor, you begin to feel much more humble. You begin to say, 'I don't want to impose my personality on anything here.' I feel like a medium. If I've developed all the skills necessary for the character to live in me, I don't create Arnolphe. Moliere created Arnolphe. I just have to give him the way to get out. And if you weren't as trained and experienced, it wouldn't come out."

What will come out is a character whom today's audiences are apt, off the bat, to find downright hissable. The middle-aged Arnolphe believes that being cuckolded--cheated on by one's wife--is the most insufferable thing a man can endure. To that end, he has handpicked his spouse-to-be, Agnes, and raised her from the age of 4 to be meek, obedient, mindless--"a total dunce," as Bolt's translation puts it. Such a creature, Arnolphe believes, will be incapable of cuckolding him.

As it turns out, Agnes is a natural, honest and open-hearted charmer; she proves immune to Arnolphe's preposterous "schooling" and blossoms into a fetching lass who ignites true love in a fitting young suitor. The stakes become desperately high for Arnolphe when he too falls deeply in love with the girl he had thought of as a mere ornament and chattel. But it is far too late for his redemption.

Cuckoldry as a social disgrace may not resonate with modern Americans as it did with the 17th century French, acknowledges Matthews, who brings a scholar's acumen to a discussion of the play. "But what the fear of cuckoldry leads to in Arnolphe is very recognizable. The power women had then was the power to cuckold you. Now we [men] have other reasons to fear for our place in society, but that sense of male insecurity which results in the oppression of women is as current today. Men are constantly thinking themselves threatened by women."

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