Rodger Sorensen is a beloved figure in the BYU Theatre and Media Arts Department. Many of those attending “The School for Wives,” in which he plays the lead role, are already rooting for him.
So when he starts forgetting lines — and his character, Arnolphe, has hundreds of them — we are sympathetic. Then, when he finally stops and says to the harpsichordist, “Amalie, what would you say here if you were me?,” and she feeds him the line from her script, he has sealed the deal. We are on his side forever. He could improvise the rest of the show and we wouldn’t care.
I can’t guarantee he’ll forget a line every night (though it’s a safe bet), but even without that bit of merriment, this is a bright, relentlessly frivolous comedy. It is a valid concern that 17th-century French comedies don’t often play well to modern audiences, but this one, written by Moliere and directed by Bob Nelson, is as accessible as if it had been written yesterday.
Arnolphe is a fat-headed rich dandy who is terrified of marrying a woman who will cheat on him, and he believes any woman who is clever is a candidate for it. (“Brightness, as a rule, is a bad omen,” he says.)
So he has acquired a ward, the lovely young Agnes (Hannah Stum), and raised her to be uneducated, naive and innocent — training her, basically, to be the perfect wife for him.
She is unaware that this is his plan, however, and while Arnolphe was on vacation recently, a suitor happened to pass by the house where she is kept, Rapunzel-style. This man, Horace (Brinton Moore Wilkins), has fallen in love with her, and she with him.
Horace, it turns out, is an old friend of Arnolphe’s, but doesn’t realize Arnolphe has a ward, much less that it’s Agnes. He confides in his friend his plan to steal Agnes away from the mean old man who keeps her, unaware that the man in question is his friend. And so on.
Sorensen is wonderful as Arnolphe, taking a character who is onstage (and speaking) for a huge majority of the show and playing him tirelessly. He leads the cast of human cartoon characters like the trouper he is.
Brinton Wilkins earns laughs as the lovestruck Horace, and Stum’s characterization of Agnes is very nice. The girl is supposed to be unbelievably naive, but just LOOKING at her, you can tell she has more going on than Arnolphe realizes.
There is also much amusement in Esther Ellsworth and Becky Witham as Arnolphe’s disgruntled maids. There’s a delightful moment when they get to beat the snot out of their employer, under the guise of “practicing” for how they’re supposed to treat Agnes’ suitor.
Amalie Marie Wickes is the aforementioned harpsichordist/prompter. She provides live accompaniment between scenes and as punctuation within them. It adds a great deal to this period piece, as do Eric Fielding’s amazing forced-perspective set and Marlene Matheson’s ruffle-rific costumes.
Should you go? Oh, heavens, yes. It is “smart people” theater, maybe, but it should appeal to all fun-loving audiences.
The Deseret News ripped this show for one of the reasons I enjoyed it: Their critic said it was "inexcusable" that Rodger Sorensen -- a theater professor, no less -- should get onstage without knowing all his lines. I can see that point of view, though I doubt it was due to Rodger's slacking off or being lazy. It was probably due to there being 5 million lines of dialogue in the show, and all of it rhyming, which pretty much forces you to learn it word-for-word.