4/24/2022 THE COUNTRY WIFE Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
A POX ON LOVING AND WENCHING
It is a truth (universally recognized) that old fools with young wives are in want of cuckolding.
This truth is the driving force behind most Restoration Comedy, particularly William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (first performed in 1675), that quintessential romp replete with roues, old fools, and heaving bosoms.
Another truth proved by the nature of Restoration Comedy is the pendulum metaphor of societal morals. the ethos that makes profoundly short-lasting pronouncements on what is sin and what is forgivable foible. After the Protestant success of the English Civil War, a puritanical demand fell on British society that saw the condemnation of all things theatrical, all things lurid, all things pleasurable. With the restoration of Charles II and the exile of the Puritans to the shores of New England, Loving and Wenching and Theatre made a triumphant return, and Roues, Hypocrites, and Rascals became the anti-heroes of the stage. It didn’t take long for the pendulum to swing back and keep The Country Wife off the stage for more than 170 years, apart from a bowdlerized (and criminally unfunny) version by David Garrick called The Country Girl, of which the less said, the better.
Which brings us to Horner, Wycherley’s (I hesitate to use the term) hero. Horner is a rake, the one whose mission is life is to cuckold the foolish hypocrites of the rising British Merchant Class. But how can he have access to all those willing wives when his reputation is known by the husbands he so longs to dishonor?
Enter Dr. Quack, Horner’s friend and co-conspirator, that lets it be known about town that Mr. Horner’s recent trip to (shudder) France, resulted in a ruinous bout with a certain “French Disease” that leaves him eunuch-ized, appalled at the
thought of women, unable to do anything but offer friendly companionship to the wives as their husbands attend to “business in town” (said business involving illicit liaisons of their own, of course). (**).
One husband who has not heard the rumor of Horner’s rakish demise is Pinchwife, a jealous fool of a man who has married a naive (and very young) “Country Wife,” Margery, whom he locks up and forbids access to the company of London society and all the dangers contained therein. But Margery is no chaste innocent, but a throbbing font of desire in search of a handsome outlet for those forces not satisfied by her execrable husband’s “nauseous, loathed kisses and embraces.” She is clever, more so than her husband, and outwits him at every turn.
Just to suggest that love is as much a driving force as lust, Wycherley includes a romantic subplot involving Pinchwife’s sister, Alithea, and Harcourt, a friend of Horner’s. Alithea is engaged to be wed to Mr. Sparkish, a witless fop of a man with an exaggerated sense of his own wit and appeal. But, unlike the other ladies of London (the appropriately named Lady Fidget, Dainty Fidget, and Lady Squeamish), Alithea is a woman of honesty and honor. and will not break her engagement just because she loves another more, nor will she stoop to adultery to find happiness.
The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse has mounted a production of The Country Wife that is a mixed bag of over-the-top comic brilliance and a few missed-opportunity shortfalls. Chief among its assets is Chris Hecke’s outrageously comic turn as Sparkish, whose every entrance is cause for joy, whose every utterance is an off-the-hook caricature of fey foppery, whose clueless self-knowledge eventually leads to a modicum of sympathy for his ultimate downfall. Also brilliant is old-pro Jeff Watkins and tyro-talent Kaley Pharr as the Pinchwifes, (Pinchwives?), Mister and Margery. They play off each other beautifully and joyously and create characters that appeal even as they misbehave and flirt with near-violent cruelty.
Also deserving kudos are Tavern veterans Laura Cole, Rivka Levin, Mary Ruth Ralston and Patty de la Garza as the “Ladies of Virtue” (or, more precisely, the “Ladies of Dubious Virtue”). I was also tickled by O’Neil Delapenha’s rampantly silly reading of Sir Jasper Fidget. who might as well have had “Gull” carved on his forehead.
But deserving of most praise is costume designers and builders Anné Carole Butler and Clint Horne whose glorious creations were beautiful, evocative, and ridiculously ornate in equal measure, Special notice should be made of Margery Pinchwife’s disguise as a young man, a disguise which would fool absolutely no one (except possibly her husband). “What a Handsome Little Fellow” Indeed!
On the shortfall side, I must admit that the Harcourt/Alithea love story is a near miss, primarily because Harcourt is played just as foppish as Sparkish and therefore offers no contrast, no reason for Alithea to choose him. To be honest, there is no “spark” between the lovers, at least so far as I could tell.
This is also a very long piece (3½ hours including intermission), and there are a few too many moments when the energy flags, when the dialects become impenetrable, when the dialogue becomes monotonously paced, where the dramaturgy becomes repetitious. Some discrete editing would have helped, some pacing change-ups would have alleviated some of the uniformity, some physical comedy would have ignited a new spark of energy.
Still and all, this a memorable wallow in the scheming and double-entendre of Restoration Comedy (I promise you will never think of China – the ceramic not the country -- again without requiring a modicum of absolution), a pointedly direct attack on hypocrisy and deception (it is reputation that is the goal, not honesty), and an often hysterical (almost farcical) tale of “good old-fashioned lust” (to quote a lyric from a 1993 musical version).
In fact, this is such a joyful excursion into the excesses of sexual and romantic conquest, that we older (and weary) folk may hope for that pendulum of public morality to head back from the brink of libidinous anarchy.
After watching this play, the phrase “a pox on loving and wenching” even begins to have a little appeal.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #ShakespeareTavernPlayhouse #TheCountryWife)
(**) The Heather Brothers’ 1993 musical version of this play (called Lust, of course), even includes a prop to cement the plot – a pair of pickled walnuts. It’s a sight gag I always thought was part of Wycherley’s original, but, alas, there is nary a walnut in sight, though there is a significant fruit bowl arrangement of banana and oranges that raises more than a few lascivious snickers.