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The School for Wives/An Actor Retires

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THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES

Northlight Theatre

AN ACTOR RETIRES

Remains Theatre

Perhaps the ultimate erotic fantasy is to establish complete power over another, body and soul. In Moliere's knowing comedy The School for Wives, this fantasy takes an especially pathetic form: a lonely, wealthy bachelor rears a pretty girl in ignorance and isolation in order to train her to be his "perfect" wife--docile, adoring, amorous on demand. Why play a dead-end singles game when you can create the woman of your dreams?

Arnolphe, the middle-aged would-be husband, thinks he's established a surefire antidote to adultery in a wife. He has taken as ward Agnes, a naive peasant girl, and had her raised in a convent, then isolated in a secluded second home where handsome young men can't undermine his Galatea's devotion to her desperate Pygmalion.

Of course the scheme flies in the face of nature. And as always, sensible Moliere takes the side of young lovers against old farts. Ironically the principal instructor in the "school for wives" is Agnes herself. The power of love--Agnes's love for the ardent, handsome Horace--obliterates Arnolphe's brainwashing. Horace's exuberant affection awakens Agnes and she stumbles into an innocent infidelity. In a bitter piece of poetic justice, Arnolphe's fear of being cuckolded becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

In an ironic twist, Moliere has Horace enthusiastically tell Arnolphe himself--his "ally"--about his love for Agnes and his plans to help her escape. Barely concealing his rage, Arnolphe clumsily seeks to foil Horace's rescue attempt. (These Arnolphes never learn--there's probably some man somewhere who, never having seen School, is even now trying to create his own school for wives.)

But Moliere is too great a dramatist to stoop to easy targets. His Arnolphe carries the pathos of a man who will never know love because he tries to engineer it. Not incidentally, Moliere played Arnolphe in the original 1662 production. That merger of life and art is crucial to this interesting Northlight Theatre production. As director Barbara Gaines sees it, The School for Wives mirrors Moliere's own marital strife.

Gaines imagines the play, performed here on a mostly bare stage, as a rehearsal by Moliere's Illustre Theatre. (It suits Gaines's purposes to pretend that it was Armande, Moliere's unfaithful wife, who originated the role of Agnes and not the actual actress, Catherine De Brie.) In Northlight's slow-moving "preshow," a nervous, pill-popping Moliere/Arnolphe seems irritated by the attentions paid his wife by the handsome young actor Herve; more infuriating is her casual way of returning them in front of the entire cast. (Of course in the play Herve plays Arnolphe's young rival Horace.)

When the play proper comes to its happy ending, Madame Moliere/Agnes exits and Herve/Horace imprudently kisses her. Moliere/Arnolphe stops the show and exits in a rage; the actors depart in silence. A last glimpse of Moliere shows him alone, bathed in a cold white spot and sadly peering from his upstage dressing room, waiting for Armande to return. Ridi, Pagliaccio!

What's going on here? Are we to believe that Moliere got what he deserved for marrying a woman reputed to be his love child from a former affair? Is this meant as a poignant proof of a playwright's inability to purge life through drama? Touching or perplexing as the ending may be, I'm unconvinced that Gaines's bittersweet biographical gloss sheds any light on a comedy written despite Moliere's domestic problems.

This extraliterary touch also pulls the plug on Northlight's energetic and zestful staging. It's as if we're being berated for enjoying ourselves and forgetting all about Moliere's bad marriage.

Happily, Gaines's deft comic touches and inspired casting generously deliver the comic goods before this downer. The main joy is Peter Siragusa's abundantly human Arnolphe, a contagious mix of Jackie Gleason's crassest eye-rolling tantrums and Zero Mostel's wickedest leers. Like the best of the silent-screen muggers, the rubber-faced Siragusa apes everything from manic petulance to fatuous self-pity. All the more remarkably, at the end of each act--when it's too much for Moliere to pretend School is only a play--Siragusa registers the same lovelorn desperation Watteau gave his crestfallen clowns.

Hynden Walch may have to dumb down to depict Agnes's subversive simplicity, but she never surrenders the character's dignity to a dumb-blond stereotype or succumbs to the temptation to broadcast her disgust for the uncomely Arnolphe. Funny and true, Walch inhabits Agnes as fully as Judy Holliday did her wonderful airhead Billie in Born Yesterday.

Kevin Gudahl's ardent Horace seems every bit as innocent as Agnes, yet his knightly rescue unwittingly destroys all of Arnolphe's social engineering. Greg Vinkler smoothly plays Chrysalde, Moliere's obligatory exponent of common sense. Ross Lehman and Jeannette Schwaba are sweetly stupid as Arnolphe's dense but dutiful servants, like two dolls in a state of suspended agitation.

Michael S. Philippi's set proves less ain't always more--it's too Spartan even for a rehearsal. Linda Buchanan's curious mix of modern and historical costumes seems backward: in the preshow, the players wear contemporary dress, then don 17th-century garb to enact their play. If this School is a comment on Moliere's love life, making it a modern-day production only confuses that.

Like Northlight's The School for Wives, a new play at Remains also sees the theater as a cracked mirror--not because it distorts reality but because it warps its players. A late-night offering in Remains' Nighthawk Series, Bruce Norris's An Actor Retires is rich with juicy insider information and pungent in-jokes. The first is the title, a play on the famed actor's manual An Actor Prepares. Our first image is of Norris burning his own head shot.

Norris's 55-minute one-act centers on an unnamed actor, played by the author, who in a bittersweet lecture-demonstration tells us why he retired from the stage in order to make custom furniture. With sometimes vengeful zeal, this character relates the miseries of seven years of acting, or as he puts it, his "high-speed toboggan ride into hell."

Norris's combustible expose teems with scary stories, the kind acting students never learn at school; he draws on his experience as the star of a short-lived TV series and an aborted pilot, as well as his work as a Chicago theater actor. His targets include the "economically impossible" trade itself, agents with inscrutable agendas who give good guilt, and phony auditions whose true purpose--since the parts have been cast in advance--is to satisfy Equity or impress a producer with the show's drawing power.

In one nasty sketch the actor squabbles with a casting agent (unnecessarily fey) who accuses him of being too affluent, not "hungry" enough, and who can't hide his contempt for "serious acting." The actor also accidentally inspires a businessman to perform, and encounters a fellow actor whose medical history puts his own problems in perspective. Finally, because he's too Methodic for his own good, the actor gets fired from a TV series because he won't smile without a motivation.

Laceratingly self-analytical, Norris's character comes across as defensive, scrappy, self-deprecating, and too brainy for his roles--flaws that come, I suppose, with the territory of the temperamental actor. It's equally clear that he's too committed to quit the stage and leave it to the hacks who act by numbers. (You know who you are.)

Mary Zimmerman's staging underplays the special pleading and goes for the cunning revelations. Norris plays his actor with a retroactive rage, like a bitter soldier returning to an empty battlefield. Supple work comes from Martha Lavey as the all-suffering agent, Christopher Donahue in the dual roles of the obnoxious casting agent and sympathetic businessman, and David Kersnar as the actor whose brush with death gives him an especially strong need for make-believe.

The play's final moment--with the actor hoping that his agent will talk him out of his premature retirement--questions the wisdom of this decision. Good. I hope Norris isn't serious. His local debut--as Master Harold in Victory Gardens' production of Athol Fugard's play--was a stunning promissory note, one that Norris has often made good on in subsequent roles. I just can't see one of Chicago's finest young actors making custom furniture.

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