BWW Review: High-Energy Performances and Low-Hanging Fruit with Theater Schmeater's Farcical THE COUNTRY WIFE
Theater Schmeater's "The Country Wife" satirizes an appalling production from 1675 by the same name. Adapted by Rachel Adkins, this restored Restoration comedy keeps the story from the original roughly the same, but with some modern components and adaptations to gussy up the satire. "The Country Wife" is an innuendo-rich satire of a satire with a faint hint of social critique. It's another modernized production of an old-fashioned show that has some good comedy, but needs a little more time to edit and sharpen directorial choices.
William Wycherly mortified audiences in the original staging due to the sexual explicitness of "The Country Wife". Director Elizabeth Wu wants the misogyny to be what's mortifying in this production. The story centers around two horny adults: the titular country wife aka Margery (Shermona Mitchell), and a clever Casanova named Horner (Nicholas Bernard). Margery has been married off to a man named Pinchwife (Laurence Hughes), whose pet name for Margery is "baggage", and forbids Margery from leaving the house so as to avoid being cuckolded. Naturally, Pinchwife's very imprisonment of his wife leads to her eagerness to flee and, consequently, become romantic with another man. The only man that the men in the village do not seem the slightest bit threatened by is Horner, because they believe that he is impotent. They refer to him as a eunuch, and guffaw in his general direction. Nay, they encourage their wives to be seen with him so as to increase their own sense of virility. Horner takes advantage of this misconception by the townsmen, and uses it to sleep with all of their wives.
The script is rife with misogynistic language, so director Elizabeth Wu has the men in the story come off as unquestionably dumb. Though this adaptation has all of the original script's offensive content, the men are so dumb in this production that they pose no actual threat. Horner and his dear friend Harcourt (Nabilah S. Ahmed) are both the most astute and the least traditionally "macho" men in the group. Harcourt does channel all of his energy into wooing Margery's sister, Alithea (Danela Butler), but unlike Pinchwife, Alithea's betrothed-to-be Sparkish (Bunthay Cheam), and Sir Jaspar Fidget (Geb Brown) who each have the warmth of a snowpea, Harcourt's motivated by love. Harcourt's sub-plot may slow down the high-energy farce, but Ahmed's tender portrayal of quippy Harcourt is the show's standout performance.
That said, Shermona Mitchell and Nicolas Barnard give grand comedic performances as the lead characters, and keep the show's energy high. Bunthay Cheam not being off-book created pacing issues and distractions, what with Cheam holding a script through the entire production. This, along with the lazy prop choices in attempts to meld the modern and with the old-fashioned made the show feel more thrown-together. Anachronisms need to serve a clear purpose, and combined with the lack of acknowledgement and lack of consistency, (some people used iPads, others wrote with a quill; some people wore Victorian boots, others nike sneakers; etc.) this approach to fusing old and new does not work.
Rachel Culbertson's set design counters the unsuccessful prop use with a successful set design, packed with creeping vines, Chinese tri-fold screens, and caged birds. Complimented by Bryce Bartl-Geller's lighting, the Schmea did a great job making their intimate performance space feel like a large, sun-flooded veranda.
In total, it's a pretty lop-sided production. There's a lot of comedic energy and some very charming performances, but how the show approaches modernization works about 50% of the time. Mitchell's Margery and Bernard's Horner have a lot more sauciness and confidence than the original script probably intended, and Horner's squad of groupies are fine with him sleeping with as many people as he wants (rather than get jealous and pitted against each other). But the props do not work, and the takeaway is very unclear. William Wycherly wrote a terribly offensive play by modern standards, yes, but this show, though funny, did not say anything other than that Wycherly wrote a terribly offensive play by modern standards. Thankfully, it was pretty funny (who doesn't love a dick joke?), but given the half-baked feeling of this production, I give Theater Schmeater's "The Country Wife" a mildly amused B-. This farce could have used more time to really come to fruition.
"The Country Wife" performs at Theater Schmeater through April 14, 2018. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.schmee.org.