A great word for adaptation is “knock-off”. Like ‘cheap’; ‘pegged-down’; an insinuation that’s just a bit crappier. The ill craftsmanship of a poorly made, get-rich-quick impostor, aesthetically just as pleasing as it needs to be to seem classy.
We’re in Disneyland, the gift shop, and there’s this knock-off of a Molière play. It pulls the same strings, the plot is basically intact, it’s got a veneer of plasticky faux-gilding and an over-saturation of color whose sheen is a little too contrasting to be considered subtle or clean. Oh, and it’s full of irony: like it’s made to look that cheap. The way of Disneying the icon is to pull it out of its regal, self-centered and dated 17th Century aristocratic French flare and slap it with the 20th Century sweatshop stickiness of facsimile. But then also show it for what it is: indulgent, quick-buck garbage.
This is CMU fellow director Sara Lyons and writer Eric Powell Holm’s adaptation of Moliere’s School for Wives as Wife U taking the fructose out of a satirical french fruit and putting it into laffy taffy.
I’m not saying this wasn’t good. It was very good. Perhaps I should highlight that after so many negative words: THIS WAS VERY GOOD! It was strange, it was very talented and entertaining and it was provocative. But it was a take on a classical play that needed a cultural updating. It’s as director Sara Lyons said in a press release for the show:
“Going all the way back to School for Wives, the way that I’ve described it to people is that it’s Taming of the Shrew-level messed up. It’s really frightening and problematic in terms of its treatment of women.”
So, this is an adaptation that cheapens some of the aspects in that ‘problematic’ play, issues with sex and class. Importantly, they do that on purpose! They lathered up the old scheme of a classically contrived plot concerning a beguiling villain, commentary on the nobility and lines that lick the air of assonance in cleverly lain verse. And then they add green-screen with photoshop; faux-gilding on tacky baroque chairs. And the star, Clay Singer’s Arnolphe; the lanky shit eating grin, of an Eric Trumpesque skeezball with a misogynist bent and leading man likeability that fits him right into the scheme. Classic story, classic villain.
Wife U attempts to give more to the women, the classic shill who are consistently harangued in stories that use them as the buffer. As, again, Lyons said, “Holm’s adaptation maintains Molière’s style in terms of rhyming and wit, but it’s contemporary language and criticizes the play for its violence. I wanted to push this further and make an effort, in the production, to shift the point of view, actually inside of the play, from Arnolphe’s to Agnes’.”
Amanda Fallon-Smith’s Agnes has all the poise of a debutante and the levity of a flower. She’s a beautiful woman, and this is an undeniable aspect of the plot from either perspective. Her beauty though is not a begetting of her grace, rather within Lyons and Holm’s adaptation the depiction of woman’s beauty is a scourge of defiance and consciousness rather than simply conclusions. They wanted to make a feminist show and so they gave the thing over to the women. Fallon-Smith’s evolution in character, from vapid to alpha has a resonance when she holds her coldness. Her pain is felt in realization. She’s the only character who stops rhyming. She transcends trope for humanity very well.
Shining within the trope though are the comedic duo of Iris Beaumier and Lea DiMarchi, whose chemistry in spinning the speed and timing of their characters’ spoofiness really lends itself to the slapstick usually reserved for male parts. It’s important that they shine so silly, that these actresses also play uppity men in a cheap drag as well. It’s the energy, I feel, of these two actresses that makes the momentum of this play feminist. Its comic heels are set upon women’s timing.
That isn’t to denounce Singer, though. He mesmerizes with his ability to play the villain. Comic chops that very much reel and succor at the loose ends of opportunity. Every bit of silence is met with a glance and every bit of smug tirade is met with a smirk.
And finally John Clay III’s Horace exudes a very exciting frankness which carried so heartily a great theme of Molière’s play that is then subverted in Lyons and Holm’s adaptation. This is the idea that earnest and honest passion is deserving of true love. It’s a certain amount of entitlement that’s shoved in the face by the adaptation. It’s a bizarre subversion because it takes what it wants of the original and leaves the rind to rot on stage. This is nuanced by the very thing that makes this play unique: it’s palpable postmodern imagery.
Media Designer Sylvie Sherman and Scenic Designer Trent Taylor created such a masterful commentary on the frivolous embracing of wealthy imagery. As I’ve said before, the entire play is laden with knock-offs: photoshop, green-screen, karaoke, midi-made muzak. The posh decadent cheapness of gilded furniture in an era where we seem to be in the throes of a rich man’s ego representing the cultural more of success. Would we forget that Molière’s audience at the Palais-Royal represents an aristocracy with cultural values needing not only the insightful critique of theatre, but perhaps the revolutionary candor of a societal revolt? Even the satire sometimes needs to be satirized when the reality is too absurd.
I’ll give it to this fine ensemble which tied the comedic chops and absolutely astonishing command of verse into followable and electric banter. I’m not sure this play delivers the insightful call-to-arms, riot-grrrl style it promises. For instance, nary a riot grrl song is included. Tsk tsk. Though, I do believe within its creepy critique of wealth culture and wannabe ego-driving; it hits on another nerve: disgust. Like so much that this play critiques, examines, and glorifies: it powerfully substantiates the idea that, in this reality-tv, society of the spectacle-cluttered culture right now: stupid can be smart and we love what we hate. This is banality on ecstasy. I hope they can stage it at Mar-A-Lago sometime soon.
Wife U closed Friday night April 28, 2017. For more information about the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, click here.