Since New York still hasn’t quite figured out outdoor theatre in its parks yet, Molière in the Park on Zoom is still the next best thing. MiP’s virtual fare of choice this past weekend was The School for Wives, the famous French playwright’s acclaimed satire about an older man named Arnolphe who resolves to marry his teenage ward, Agnes, and shuts her off from society to ensure she’ll never be smart enough to cheat on him. Hearing a female actor, Tonya Pinkins, utter Arnolphe’s line, “I keep her here, in another house I own, / Where no one calls, and she can be alone,” brought Mother Gothel from Tangled to mind, and if you’ve seen the movie and know how successful she was in keeping Rapunzel locked in a tower once a handsome young man showed up, you might be able to guess how well Arnolphe’s plan works out.
I need to note here that MiP’s production of this male-heavy show is presented by a cast entirely of women, and the result toes an amusing line between sophisticated and knowingly scrappy. The actresses are costumed in fancy blouses and hats, but the facial hair that denoted them as men was drawn on their lips and chins with what looked like marker ink.
This setup is effective in establishing this particular production’s conceit. Having women play the already-satirized male characters intensifies the comedy, making it feel as though what we’re really watching is women making fun of how dim-witted and egotistic men can be. (No offense.) The female-coded costumes, on which floral and leopard prints abound, and the clearly drawn-on facial hair combined with a non-naturalistic virtual backdrop – which fuses images of contemporary New York streets and houses in a scrapbook-like collage – to repeatedly accentuate my instinct that we are meant to be placed in a clearly contrived world in which the players are aware of their characters’ flaws and are deliberately joining Moliere in mocking them.
It’s a sound enough reason to mount this play with an all-female cast, whether or not this was in fact director Lucie Tiberghien’s intention. Where the conceit gets muddled, however, is within the two characters actually written as female — the young ward Agnes (Mirirai Sithole) and the servant girl Georgette (Tamara Sevunts). Since they each had to play the submissive woman, I couldn’t help but feel like they were being left out of an inside joke of sorts that the rest of the “women” shared in embodying the men. Agnes’ whole arc sees her discovering her own innate smarts in defiance of Arnolphe’s efforts to stunt them. Sithole gave a sincere, earnest performance, and I believed Agnes’ journey of self-discovery wholeheartedly. But that was the problem: I feel like the actress should have been directed to play her part as knowingly as the others seemed to, where she knew Agnes’ worth from the start and was simply playing the ingenue for the joke.
The rest of the actors had it easier; being cast against gender meant that their performances automatically became deliberate caricatures, and the actors occupied that space brilliantly. The ever-commanding Tonya Pinkins skillfully captured Arnolphe’s pompous air, and her best moments were when she infuses this with her own snark in asides to the audience — in my personal favorite, she tries to force a laugh at the young man Horace’s story of sneaking off with Agnes, and bluntly turns to the audience and says, “I’ve done the best I could.”
Kaliswa Brewster was another standout as Horace; though the apparent voice of reason among the men as the only one to recognize Agnes’ cleverness, he is not exempt from jest. His overeagerness to share details of his romantic endeavors, which Brewster plays with apt animation, evokes a modern-day braggadocious college kid trying to impress girls at a bar, or perhaps on Tinder. He’s also one of the many characters that joins in making fun of Arnolphe’s ridiculous arboreal pseudonym, Lord of the Stump — “or ‘frump,’ or something.”
Those moments of ribbing between the men remind us of the comedy already written into the script (it is a satire, after all), and one stops to wonder why the female cast was even necessary to draw attention to it. Perhaps it wasn’t, but watching them play is enjoyable all the same.