Ted van Griethuysen earns the first big laugh in the Shakespeare Theatre’s The Country Wife, not by uttering one of the play’s famously long-winded witticisms, but simply by making an entrance.
His Sir Jasper Fidget is quite a vision: A feathered hat tops a riot of ringlets that cascade to shoulders decked out with ribbon and brocade. Gold threads infuse his shimmering outer garments so much that pearl buttons can barely register, while ruffles and lace pop from his collar and drip from wrists, elbows, knees, and any nonjointed spot large enough to accommodate them. His silver, high-heeled shoes sport satin bows that would trip a water buffalo.
And Fidget is hardly the most flamboyant creature in William Wycherley’s comedy of manners and adultery. He’s just the opening salvo in a productionwide fireworks display of period artifice. When Mr. Sparkish (Floyd King) arrives on the scene, he makes Fidget look like a Puritan. And they’re both outdressed by the ladies, whose gowns are so elaborately encrusted with jewels that they must be draped in linen tents before their wearers can sit confidently at a dinner table.
Wycherley’s dialogue being at least as ornate as anything costumer Robert Perdziola has designed for the characters, there’s a certain logic to all this excess, as well as to the curlicues ornamenting every chair and wall surface set designer Simon Higlett sends spinning into view on his stagewide turntable. Surface and appearances count for everything in Restoration comedy (which was a reaction against the austerity of Puritanism), and Keith Baxter’s ravishingly overdecorated staging makes sure the audience never forgets that fact.
Most of the author’s jokes concern a rake named Horner (Leigh Lawson) who passes himself off as a eunuch in order to cuckold husbands with their blessing, and a dim, newly married country lass named Margery (Tessa Auberjonois) who enthusiastically embraces adultery the instant she figures out what it is. Horner knows how to use appearances to his advantage; Margery is just learning to see past them. And except for Margery’s jealous husband (David Sabin in a splendidly dyspeptic performance), everyone else fits the mold of mannered aristocracy Wycherley mocks in the line “Women of quality are so civil you can hardly distinguish love from good breeding.”
The play’s wit, for all its decorum, is essentially coarse. “He’s as harmless a man as ever came out of Italy with a good voice,” says a crone who, like everyone else in the play’s sex-crazed society, salivates at the thought of pawing an alleged eunuch such as Horner. But the director recognizes that Wycherley’s phrasing is so much more artificial than Shakespeare’s that he needs to put extra punch in the punch lines. There’s plenty of physicality to his staging—much shrieking, bouncing on beds, and slamming of doors by characters who do their damnedest to live up to names like Mrs. Squeamish and Mr. Pinchwife.
When Auberjonois’ impetuously idiotic Margery (imagine a youthful blend of Goldie Hawn and Madeline Kahn) writes a lust-fueled letter, she’s so anxious to put passion in her words that she climbs up on the table with her pen and paper, then tumbles to the floor in a stomach-landing flourish that would do a lovesick schoolgirl proud.
None of which really makes the evening a laff riot. Both the language and plot are too convoluted to sustain hilarity for three hours—which is why Baxter is smart to have dressed the evening to the nines and filled it with artistic and cultural footnotes. Those tentlike bibs the ladies wear to dinner are one example. Another is the blast of Henry Purcell’s “Abdelazer” that opens the evening. Written originally as theater music, it’s the theme Benjamin Britten worked variations on when he wanted to demonstrate how the sections of an orchestra interact in his “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” In a sense, Baxter has taken the same approach to Wycherley’s comedy, introducing Restoration-era archetypes and illustrating how they play off each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
Presumably, in 1675, there’d have been a more specific kick to the character comedy, with audiences recognizing figures from the court of Charles II. Contemporary theatergoers haven’t that advantage, but archetypes are still archetypes, be they jealous husbands or virtuous virgins, and they’re played here with all the invention a capable cast could reasonably be expected to bring to them.
But ultimately, Wycherley hasn’t given the machinations of his characters much of a payoff. Things get complicated, then get more complicated, then get resolved by authorial fiat in a way that doesn’t settle anything or tell you how you’re supposed to feel about all the debauchery that’s been depicted. But, just as he does for the punch-challenged punch lines and the plot that goes in circles, Baxter has a finesse up his sleeve. He stages an impromptu little dance (choreographed by Karma Camp) in which Margery, who’s learned so much about posing and lying from the city folks, returns the favor by teaching them to kick up their heels. Just as they’re catching on, the director has composer Robert Waldman bring back Purcell’s soaring musical theme, powering a delicate little jig into a full-fledged production number—one that provides the evening with as emphatic a finale as you’d find in most musical comedies. It juices the curtain call, sending the audience out so flush and sated that any exhaustion they may have been feeling during the comedy’s third hour simply evaporates. It’s hard, in short, to imagine a smarter Country Wife.
Dunno about mourning, but morning sure doesn’t become Elektra. While you’re watching the show at the Warehouse Theater, you can kid yourself that tarting up the text with amplification, video graphics, and cheap posturing is somehow giving Euripides’ tragedy some currency. But in the cold light of the next dawn, none of director Robert McNamara’s tricks stand up to scrutiny.
Even during the show, they’re mostly annoying. Elektra’s impoverished husband (Thomas Adrian Simpson) has no sooner announced that he married his royal bride under protest and has never slept with her than three gyrating poseurs on platforms—the Greek chorus reconceived as an MTV backup group—start bleating their lines unintelligibly. Video monitors glow red, then show fluid swirling down a drain—blood perhaps, a Psycho portent?—while Elektra (Lara Crawford Ring) complains vehemently about her fate in post-Agamemnon Greece.
Costuming defines Elektra’s brother, Orestes (Eric Schoen in white bohemian linens), and mom, Klytemnestra (Ioanna Gavakou in black evening gown and feather boa), more clearly than anything they say or do. And after the former kills the latter (covering himself with blood, but getting just a dribble on her), the gods arrive, depicted as shades-wearing automatons, one of whom delivers plot points in a computerlike monotone while his companion chats on a cell phone.
What any of this has to do with Elektra’s avenging her father’s death and her mother’s betrayal is anyone’s guess. McNamara writes in his program notes that compared with Sophocles’ sympathetic Electra, Euripides’ take on the story feels “Beckettian.” Admittedly, there’s some truth to that assertion: Euripides was the iconoclast of Greek drama, more interested in individuals than in community, and fond of using down-to-earth language.
But there’s no poetic spareness to Kenneth McLeish’s translation, which has Klytmnestra tell Elektra, “You are Daddy’s girl, not Mommy’s,” and allows Orestes to promise vengeance with the line “If criminals were allowed to win, why would anyone ever believe in God again?”
Nor does anything about McNamara’s staging suggest he’s taking the Beckett connection seriously. Brecht is his more obvious model, if only because the evening’s self-indulgence quickly alienates the audience.
Scena’s actors have been encouraged to play broadly and inflect their lines eccentrically, which most of them do without particular flair. The one exception is Ring, who internalizes Elektra’s fury until it threatens to devour her. She’s a persuasively angry hausfrau, and under different circumstances her performance might actually be affecting. Here, alas, it’s just better than what surrounds it. CP