Wedding Bell Blues

If you think marital woes can be a hoot, you're right -- sometimes

Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

Two new offerings, written 275 years apart, share a devilish delight in sending their beleaguered characters scurrying across loaded minefields in pursuit of that ever-elusive condition known as connubial bliss. One of these comedies is a venerated classic; the other should be.

First, the known quantity. Molière's The School for Wives, which debuted in Paris in 1662, opens the nineteenth season at St. Louis Shakespeare. The plot concerns Arnolphe, a foolish bachelor who is so paranoid at the prospect of being cuckolded that he placed his intended bride into a secluded convent at age four. All these years later, the beautiful Agnes is so simpleminded that a notion as devious as adultery would never penetrate her empty brain. If no other original ideas are able to enter that vacuous head, well, that's the price one must pay for marital security.

Todd Gillenardo and Sara Renschen in The School for Wives
Todd Gillenardo and Sara Renschen in The School for Wives

Details

The School for Wives-By Molière. Performed by St. Louis Shakespeare through July 27 at the Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-1111.

When We Are Married-By J. B. Priestley. Performed by ACT, Inc. August 1-3 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown at Big Bend. Call 314-725-9108.

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The hilarity begins when Arnolphe returns home, expecting to wed Agnes on the morrow, only to learn that during his brief absence the naïve bride-to-be has allowed herself to be wooed by an ardent young swain. Arnolphe's determined efforts to rid himself of the pesky suitor comprise this two-hour traffic on the stage. A succinct two hours it is: how refreshing that a play can be so complete, so fulfilling and, at the same time, so compact. And did we mention that the script is composed in rhymed verse?

Don't allow the prospect of rhymed couplets to scare you off. As translated with sublime brilliance by poet Richard Wilbur, the rhymes flow so naturally that they become integral to the action. At the same time, the couplets are so cloud-light as to take one's breath away. You could close your eyes and still have a marvelous time by simply allowing this airy cascade of iambic pentameter to roll over you.

But then you'd miss the manic physicality of Todd Gillenardo's lunatic protagonist. His Arnolphe is wound as tightly as a constipated clock. As he peers at his numerous imagined enemies through furrowed eyebrows -- actually, it's not the brows that furrow so much as it is the entire forehead -- Gillenardo can turn an innocuous ball of yarn into a menacing spider's web in which he becomes the tangled, captive fly. Yet through all this exhaustive effort, he delivers the verse effortlessly.

Gillenardo's seething Arnolphe is well countered by Sara Renschen's demure Agnes. Renschen is quietly emerging as one of the area's more interesting actresses. Her understated portrayals always strike a lucid tone. Consider her work here: Molière only gives Agnes one moment in which to show off. That moment occurs late in the evening, when she reveals that she knows Arnolphe has cultivated her to be a simpleton. ("Oh, it humiliates me; I revolt / Against the shame of being such a dolt.") How tempting it must be for an actress to tear into that scene and have at him. Yet Renschen eschews easy theatrics. Her attack possesses bite, but it is delivered in vacuous character.

In addition to the two leads, Lavonne Byers and Penney Kols as Arnolphe's two servants (changed here with no real harm from a man and woman to two women) add to the wicked fun. Doubtless, some of the supporting actors will grow more comfortable with reciting verse dialogue as they begin to trust the enthusiastic audience response.

A few concerns: The scenic design looks more threadbare than one is accustomed to seeing at St. Louis Shakespeare, and the staging by director Donna Northcott -- at the climaxes of both acts, for instance -- lacks the panache that Molière invites. And why, pray tell, in the middle of Act 1 does a horde of people inexplicably cross the stage, as if in search of People's Coffee (the neighborhood coffee shop which is remaining open after the show)? Very strange indeed.

Happily, however, this production gets the big things right, the most important of which is Gillenardo's Arnolphe, a performance that, as it nibbles at the edge of violence, reminds us of how closely aligned comedy and tragedy are. The other big thing St. Louis Shakespeare gets right is its initial decision to have staged the play to begin with. To too many people, the word "classic" is synonymous with something dusty and remote. But if this be classic comedy, bring it on.


ACT, Inc. is also to be commended for mounting the rarely seen J. B. Priestley comedy, When We Are Married. Here's the premise. In 1908, three British couples have gathered together to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries. All three were married on the same September day 25 years ago by the same eager young parson. Now, at the height of their revelry, they learn that the parson was a little too eager, for he was not yet authorized to preside over marriages. These six are not legally married, a revelation which leads to all sorts of potentially humorous situations.

Ever since it debuted in England in 1938, When We Are Married has been a repertory theater staple, as admired as Hobson's Choice. A recent London revival was so relentlessly droll that attendees almost needed seat belts to keep from rolling off their chairs. But in America, When We Are Married had the misfortune of opening on Broadway during the same December week in 1939 that Gone With the Wind premiered, a week in which no one was paying much attention to live theater. Today, apart from the occasional rollicking production like the one at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre in 1989, the play remains unknown in this country.

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