When Moliere wrote “The School for Wives” in 1662, he had recently married Armande Bejart, a woman 20 years his junior. She was the younger sister of his longtime and, one hopes, former girlfriend, Madelaine. It was a scandalous affair and theater pests gossiped that Armande might even be Moliere’s daughter with Madelaine.
“The School for Wives,” Moliere’s first full-length play, was stormed with charges of immorality when it opened at the Theatre du Palais-Royal. But just as in our more enlightened age — most recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art — such allegations make for great publicity. In short, Moliere was on his way — “Tartuffe,” “The Misanthrope” and “The Miser” all would follow — and comedy would find its rightful place next to French drama. Anyone who loves Moliere can’t help but be mischievously amused by this controversy-breeds-success tale.
Although none of this is integral to enjoying Penobscot Theatre’s charming production of “The School for Wives,” it’s fun to know because the plot of the play oddly parallels Moliere’s own life at the time. One would not want to look too deeply at these details, however, because that would mean missing that director Matthew Arbour has crafted a timelessly cogent production, which honors the farce without tailspinning into camp.
The story concerns the overwhelming insecurity of Arnolphe, a middle-aged Parisian who meticulously and pathologically devises a plan to wed his young ward, Agnes. To ensure her innocence, he has raised her among nuns. But not even the nuns can keep her from falling hard for Horace, a suitor closer to her own age and inspired by his own true love. Horace confides his intentions to Arnolphe without realizing the outwardly avuncular and inwardly devious man is his rival. And so, the chase is on.
Richard Wilbur’s famous 1971 adaptation, a favorite in regional theaters, is written in rhymed verse, which could be disastrously annoying but is actually entertaining. Jay H. Skriletz, as Arnolphe, is a model for handling the poetry in a way that never offends the ear. He isn’t singsongy or overblown — which other cast members sometimes are. The real treasure is that Skriletz doesn’t take the easy route and make Arnolphe into a buffoon. He presents a man of intention — albeit chauvinist and scheming — and we can’t help feeling a little sorry for him.
On Friday’s opening night, Skriletz carried the show briskly, though some may have found themselves straining to hear the entirety of his lines. From time to time, this was true of nearly everyone on stage, and the fiesty crew could stand to speak up and out a bit.
Kate E. Kenney, as Agnes, in fact, has the tenderest of voices. But her demure portrayal of the character is so tres sweet, you hardly need her lines anyway. Whenever Joshua Scharback’s Horace is in a scene, it’s awash with hyperactive ornamentation — and it works.
Ron Lisnet, as Arnolphe’s judicious friend Chrysalde, is toweringly droll and has natural stature in the role. Ron Adams and Monique Gibouleau, as Arnolphe’s servants, highlight their scenes with shtick — doors in the face, skirmishes to be first, goofy expressions.
Luke Hedger, Brian Ross and Jim Reitz make cameo appearances which add a freshness to the circles everyone else on stage is running around each other. And Ginger Phelps’ decorative costumes are frilly and silly and perfect.
The message of “The School for Wives” steps beyond Arnolphe’s training ground for Agnes. Clearly, the real school takes place in the audience, where, even today, a betrothed must be discerning about the masquerading tricks a potential spouse might have up the sleeve.
In these days of prenuptial agreeements, you could say the moral of the story sounds boring and redundant. That’s because, in 1999, we’d like to think it is boring and redundant. The same cannot be said for this show, which is an evening of baroque fun.
Penobscot Theatre will present “The School for Wives” 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 17, and 5 p.m. Saturday Oct. 16 at the Opera House, 131 Main St. in Bangor. For tickets, call 942-3333.