Brooklyn theater company Molière in the Park continues to innovate through the live-performance dry spell of this annus horribilis. After using Zoom technology for their clever Tartuffe back in the spring, these devoted artists have tried out a different platform for their new production of School for Wives. The result is visually smoother and more sophisticated.
It does have latency problems – there’s a significant delay between the video and the audio, which I presume is the cause of actors stepping on one another’s lines. Fortunately, this technical issue doesn’t detract too much from the flow. For one thing, all of this is so new, I believe most of us just don’t expect perfect flow in this kind of format. Also, you could almost say the imperfections add to the production’s charm – something that wouldn’t usually be the case in the mature, centuries-old art of live, in-person theater.
The company staged its last live production of this 17th-century, perfect-for-#MeToo satire in summer 2019 in their usual Prospect Park home. Artistic director Lucie Tiberghien directed both that one and this one from Richard Wilbur’s deliciously funny iambic pentameter verse translation. But it’s safe to say the two realizations couldn’t be much more different.
The cast is not just race- and gender-blind but entirely female. And this time, the great Broadway star Tonya Pinkins shines at the center.
With cocky hat and penciled-on mustache, she embodies the pridefully sexist patrician Arnolphe with comical superciliousness that urges us to root for his comeuppance. At the same time Pinkins imbues him with just enough humanity to draw a touch of empathy. This big, craftily measured turn is all the more impressive given the circumstances of this kind of theater today. Each actor sits alone at her own location, performing with earbuds before a screen and interacting with her castmates remotely. Each appears to us in talking-head format most of the time. One would think this would be alienating for the actors. Maybe it is, but Pinkins and the rest of the able cast create the convincing interplay this absurd fable demands.
Arnolphe has sequestered his young charge Agnès (Mirirai Sithole) in a nunnery, directing the nuns to raise her uneducated and compliant so as to mold her into his version of the perfect submissive young wife. He has now taken her into his house and set his bumbling servants Georgette and Alain to keep her isolated. But they have failed to prevent her from meeting handsome swain Horace (a vibrant Kaliswa Brewster). Thence, the course of young love brooks no diversion.
Sithole’s Agnès is rather reserved, with a steely sort of innocence. That makes especially powerful the scene where she reads the letter she’s written to Horace upon learning he has turned her (temporarily) away. It is, I think, the only prose passage in the script. (It’s interesting to recall Arnolphe’s description of his ideal helpmeet: “I want a wife whose thought is not sublime/Who has no notion what it is to rhyme.”)
Sithole makes Agnès’s reading of the letter blossom: “I don’t know what you have done to me, but I know that I am mortally vexed by the harsh things I am made to do to you, that it will be the most painful thing in the world to give you up, and that I would be happy indeed to be yours.” (Huffs Arnolphe, “Behold what scribbling leads to! It was quite/Against my wishes that she learned to write.”) Agnès’s strength flowers further at the end, when she finally confronts her manipulator.
The supporting cast jumps enthusiastically into the fun, amusingly coiffed and costumed and playing up the satire with cheeky performances. Backdrops of what look like Brooklyn brownstones make street meetings seem as such. The servants appear in the windows. Arnolphe’s last desperate scheme takes him to an alley, where Agnès appears behind a green dumpster. All this benefits from the artful deployment of the technology, thanks to Tiberghien, video engineer Andy Carluccio, costume designer Ari Fulton, and the rest of the creative crew.
Collaboration is always at live theater’s essence. But it takes a different tack when audiovisual technology is the focus and everyone’s working alone from their homes. There’s an almost palpable sense of Molière in the Park’s team ethos in this digital medium. I imagine we’ll continue to see elements of this technology and the spirit it engenders even after live in-person theater resumes.
The School for Wives is co-presented with the French Institute Alliance Française (F.I.A.F.] in partnership with the LeFrak Center, Lakeside, Prospect Park Alliance, and Theatre for a New Audience. The live performances took place Oct. 24, but the show was recorded, and you can still see it until 2 p.m. October 28, 2020 at this link.