As far as PaperHouse Theatre is concerned, laughter is the food of love, and they're planning to play on with Moliere's School for Wives as their Valentine's day offering. The French playwright, jealous of his own wife to a fault, mocked his own fault brilliantly in this comedy - as well as the absurdly paternalistic attitude the aristocracy took toward women's rights and education.
Like Dario Fo's We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! last summer, PaperHouse is attempting to be edgy with another foreign comedy. Like La Ronde, last year's PaperHouse Valentine, School for Wives created an uproar in its native country when it was first performed: Moliere himself starred as Arnolphe, the mid-life bachelor who goes overboard in preparing himself and his young ward for a marriage custom-designed for his own self-indulgence.
But that was in 1662, so PaperHouse artistic director Nicia Carla can easily be forgiven for shaking up Moliere's comedy to sharpen some of its aging edginess. Carla & Co. have not only pared down the scenery and modernized the finery in their new School, they've reconfigured its basic love triangle. Arnolphe is no longer undermined by a younger man in his attempts to mold Agnes into the perfectly subservient wife.
No, it's a younger woman who trips up Arnolphe's predatory scheme. Carla actually didn't come up with this audacious alteration until all the other roles had been cast.
"We had trouble finding the right guy, and then Andrea [King] and I were discussing the play and thought why's it gotta be a guy? I was immediately excited by the idea," Carla recalls. "Up to this point, we had not had any same sex relationships portrayed in any of our plays, and that is leaving out a large percentage of human experience."
After her scintillating performance as Orsino in Chickspeare's recent production of Twelfth Night, it's difficult to predict how mannish or womanish Andrea King will be as Horace at Duke Energy Theater. No matter how the interloper's sexuality is sliced, the hoodwinking of Arnolphe will provide Joe Copley with yet another immersion in Moliere's special brand of mid-life dimwittedness. His previous foray into this realm, as Orgon in Charlotte Shakespeare's 2011 production of Tartuffe, was arguably Copley's finest comedy performance ever.
Yet Copley sniffs at the idea that Moliere dimwits are his special province. "It is probably more accurate to say my specialty is playing wrong-headed pompous asses in general," he points out.
Nor was he daunted by the onus of playing a role originated by the master himself. "I suppose it gave me the freedom, even the obligation, to pull no punches with the role," says Copley. "After all, if Moliere had wanted to play it safe he could have taken roles like the always-sensible Oronte for himself.
Arnolphe is truly an outrageous character, but as I went through the rehearsal process, and with a lot of help from Nicia, I came to see him as fully human after all. Surely Moliere had as much fun with him as I have, and I like to imagine his ghost winking in approval, at least some of the time."
The School for Wives - with Copley, King, Alexandria Lee, Jennie Greenfield, and Philip Robertson - continues at Spirit Square through Feb. 22.
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