Five shows in one weekend, and it was all sold out. Needless to say, committing to writing a review for this show without a ticket locked down was beginning to make me anxious. Fortunately, the School of Drama’s box office has a wonderful waitlist system, where you can receive the tickets of those who don’t show up at no cost at all. Thus, by arriving promptly on the scene, we were added to the waitlist, and soon ushered in to Purnell’s Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theatre.
The stage was set with gaudy gold-accented furniture
and a faux-marbled floor. My eyes immediately darted towards the numerous green screens placed around the stage at different angles, one of which was below a balcony in what seemed to be a confining box.
As people settled in, *Wife U’*s protagonist — who quickly became a difficult character to empathize with — strutted onto stage towards the audience, and gestured with his arm towards the stage. How did we know he was a character? He was dressed in a gold waistcoat and blindingly white pants, with delightfully horrid animal print loafers. He soon added a gold-clad staff, and a white blazer embroidered with gold patterns and a large golden “S” on the back. This was Monsieur De La Souche, played by senior musical theater major Clay Singer, starting off Wife U with an impressive display of wealth and arrogance.
Wife U is the story of how Monsieur De La Souche, also known by his “boring” name, Arnolphe, works to wed a woman whom he has been raising since she was four for the specific purpose of designing her to be the perfect, “simple” (or — as the other characters point — dumb) wife. He set up a private school where she learned little to nothing apart from domestic skills such as cooking, cleaning, knitting, singing, and being polite. Agnes, played by senior musical theater major Amanda Fallon Smith, is the fruit of his efforts, his ideal “simple” woman, who he is all set to marry. Unfortunately for Arnolphe, the son of a close friend, Horace — played by senior musical theater major John Clay III — also falls for Agnes, creating an incredibly unsettling love triangle.
Wife U is Eric Powell’s adaptation of School for Wives, written by the seventeenth century French playwright Molière. The play, through its many renditions and performances, has stood to draw attention towards the ethics of marriage, touching on themes of arranged marriages, love, and schematically strategic weddings.
What was most remarkable about this production was the use of the aforementioned green screens. In scenes where letters from one lover to another were being read, actors stood before overtly extravagant backdrops and appeared together on screen while being physically separated. The screens were also used to create effects of falling or walking through scenery, and they never failed to make the audience chuckle. In addition to the cameras used for the green screens, Arnolphe carried a hand held camera that fed to the screens all around the stage. In moments of distress, we had the distinct pleasure of seeing his angry and tense expressions up close, as he spoke with high proximity to the lens. The screens were also humorously used for a variety of karaoke renditions throughout the performance. Topical songs accompanied the plot, such as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” and The Runaway’s “Cherry Bomb.” This gave the actors a chance to show off their vocals and belt with an energy that livened up the audience, and gave the director a chance to update the play without significantly altering the script. It was goofy, and still integral to the plot. It was possibly my favorite part of the show.
If you’re not interested in tech, don’t fret, this play had the delicious dramatic irony that any real-life drama-lover would delight in. As Horace attempts to woo Agnes, he confides in Arnolphe, thinking that he and Monsieur de la Souche are in fact two different individuals. As you can imagine, the reveal scene was quite a treat to watch, and had my friend and I shaking in our seats. Senior musical theater majors Iris Beaumier and Lea DiMarchi, who were dually cast as Arnolphe’s close friends and the maids of the household, made the drama even more exciting, acting both as Arnolphe’s co-conspirators and his biggest critics. Beaumier and DiMarchi transformed from mustached old men to quirky French maids throughout the performance, giving the audience another reason to chuckle.
This adaptation also brought in elements of breaking the fourth wall, pulling the audience into the plot, and forcing us to really mull over what was happening to Agnes. The further removed you are from the plot, the less morally ambiguous the plot appears to be. Agnes appears happy, and just confused by the greater world, until we see her interactions with Arnolphe and hear her letters. Arnolphe seems giddy and superficial until we hear his asides and soliloquies. The dialogue is rhythmic and poetic, with the characters speaking in meter, but still managed to project a sort of depth that was honestly unexpected. I wanted to hate Arnolphe by the end of the play, when Agnes leaves him for Horace, but instead I felt sorry for him. I found myself wondering whether it was his own upbringing that dictated his fall, or if he was a fundamentally terrible human being. Selfishness always comes from somewhere, and in this case it was the insecurity of a rich man with a little too much control over the world around him.
On a brighter note, this play screams girl power by the end, but takes a while to get there. The mood shifted from light-hearted, to melancholy, to dark as the love triangle spins further out of control. It is cathartic to see Agnes’ slow realization of the world that exists beyond her bubble and to see her coming to terms with her prescribed ignorance. The more she knows, the more she takes ownership of herself and fights for the right to be who she wants to be.
In the end, Agnes declares her independence both from Arnolphe and Horace during her rendition of “You Don’t Own Me,” deciding to be with Horace but stay unwed. Her decision to avoid marriage, despite being with her “one true love” was the cherry on top of this story. The audience absolutely loved the “don’t need no man” attitude that festered in the female characters, and was glad to see all the male characters wake up and realize that the world does not revolve around their desires.