For middle-aged, middle-class folks, material objects as presents seems to be an exercise in social conventions without purpose other than being a polite gesture. We prefer to give experiences. Thus, when a cousin’s birthday fell on a recent weekend, we invited her and her husband to the Blackfriar theatre in Staunton, VA to see William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Social conventions, polite behavior, and gestures get turned on their heads in this production by the American Shakespeare Center’s cast.
The Country Wife is a Restoration Comedy, which should tell you right off that it will be a couple of hours of fluff, cuckolding, and penis jokes. Wycherley centers this play on one un-penis joke and many variations thereof. The main character Harry Horner (Benjamin Curns) and his doctor, A Quack (Rene Thornton, Jr.) conspire to spread rumors that Horner, recently returned from France, is now “as bad as a Eunuch”. Harry Horner, as a bad as a Eunuch… hardly a few lines into the play, and we already have two penis jokes. Well, expect two more hours of penis jokes in every variety in hand from flaccid to erect, and some tongue in cheek references to fine china.
I shall not enumerate how many different ways that one can refer to the plumbing. But, let me direct our attention from below the waist line to other body parts that reveal the style of acting necessary for Restoration Comedy. Though only a generation after Shakespeare and the Elizabethan era of stage (do not forget that Cromwell closed the theatres in the early 17th century), Restoration Comedy was the reaction to oppression. The depth of character development had been lost during those years of silence. What resurrected in the Restoration era were farcical representations in name, dialogue, and gesture. For a play about philandering bachelors, jealous husbands, and arouseable women, with names such as Jack Pinchwife and Lady Fidget, expect fast interactions and wild expressions. As the play works toward it climax, expect the stage to get more crowded with flailing and wagging weapons, gasps and guffaws, embraces and entanglements, and plenty of cleavage.
Sir Jasper Fidget (Daniel Kennedy) starts the silliness with a loudly small gesture of tapping his fingers over his lips to conceal his laughter at Horner’s rumored malady. He brings by his wife, Lady Fidget (Allison Glenzer) and sister, Dainty Fidget (Ronald Peet), to meet Horner, to see whether he is really impotent and to offer for Horner to play cards with them. This is exactly what Horner and A Quack have conspired to do: to gain access to the ladies of the gentry class to play his hand right to trump their lust. Glenzer’s well buttressed decoutage may not seem like something that you could gesture with, but she can certainly get her message across to Hornor with a sigh or sudden inhalation, such that her voluptuous bossom yearns to test his shopping skills. Peet, portraying Dainty in drag, grabs one laugh after another as he recites his dainty lines in a deep bass voice. Peet will carry this joke further, in a second female role of Lucy, the maid who reveals and resolves all these buffoons, in the final scene. The third lady whom Fidget escorts into Horner’s chambers later in the play is Mistress Squeamish (Sarah Fallon), whose eyes squint in rejection, when she believes that others are observing her advances toward Horner, but then swoon and bulge when she anticipates being alone with him.
Jack Pinchwife (John Harrell), his country wife, Margery (Tracie Thomason) and sister, Alithea (Abbi Hawk) add more triangles to this farce. Pinchwife use to be a London playboy, bedding as many woman as Horner. But, he is now wed a country wife, whom he vows to keep far away from the temptations of the city. Harrell pinches not only his wife, but also his eyes and lips and lines in such a manner that he acknowledges his fate as the cuckolded husband as much as he protests his fate. But, every attempt that he makes to avoid the web only ensnares him more, while enticing Margery closer to being the prey of Horner. Thomason uses her broad smile to show her country naivety turn to cunning scheming, as she fools her husband into handing her over to Horner. Hawk, on the other hand, is the black widow, seeking her own prey in a love triangle with Mr. Sparkish (Chris Johnston), her suitor, and Frank Harcourt (Grant Davis). Her red and black dress of the opening scenes turns to a white wedding dress later in the play. But, she does not know any more than we, whom she will eventually exchanges vows with, though we know that vows are airy words with as much substance as the vapors which evaporate in heat. If hair could gesture, Hawk’s beckons, in black strands pulled back tight, seductive curls dangling over her right ear, and thick cord that arches twice, high on the left side such that one must stare at it to figure out how she keeps it aroused such. With neither speech or movement, her hair demands attention, which is what she wants of men throughout the play.
Well, all these hands, arms, breasts, lips, eyes, and hair eventually find their companions on stage to hold, embrace, caress, kiss, look into, and run one’s fingers through. At the curtain, the comic resolution as been brought forward, but we can wink, for we know that all these gestures are as ephemeral as an evening of theatre, to be played out again and again, with each evening on the stage of social deception.