The vagaries of love, from Moliere to ‘Medea’
In true repertory fashion, Dallas Theater Center is currently producing two plays simultaneously, with largely the same casts, at alternate performances. And while on the surface they don’t appear to have a lot in common, I think they actually do.
On the main stage of the Kalita, Moliere’s Renaissance comedy The School for Wives, is a bit of rhyming-meter ribaldry, with the man-cougar Arnolphe (Chamblee Ferguson, pictured below) hoping to marry (i.e., have sex with) his comely young ward Agnes (Morgan Laure), while she has eyes for the young stud Horace (Daniel Duque-Estrada). (It’s basically the same plot as The Barber of Seville and Sweeney Todd.) After many mistaken identities, frantic entrances and exits and iambs, the parties are paired age-appropriately while the cast sings pop songs during a pie fight. It’s all frothy good fun in candy colors with lots of chuckling and smiles.
Downstairs, in a dank basement space, there’s less levity about the fickleness of relationships. The play is Medea, Robinson Jeffers’ peerless translation of Euripides’ masterpiece, about the barbarian woman (Sally Nystuen Vahle, pictured right) who — spurned by her Argonaut hubbie Jason (Chris Hury) so he can marry the dumb-blonde daughter of wealthy King Creon (Kieran Connolly) — exacts a terrible revenge. (Think Lifetime movie. Think Susan Smith.)
To me, these are companion pieces about how the course of true love never does run smooth: They should have cast Vahle and Hury not just as Medea and Jason, but as Agnes and Horace, and let the audiences draw the natural conclusion.
Both plays, firmly ensconced in the canon of classical theater, are stylized (both very talky, with most of the action of Medea happening off-stage and the couplets in Wives sing-songily poetic), but both still work for contemporary viewers because they speak to universalities and frightening truths. And in both instances, the leading actors sell the material.
Vahle, one of DFW’s most powerful leading ladies in both comedy and drama, was born to play the fiery Medea. She’s a go-for-broke actress, who roils and bellows and goes to the darkest of places, yet never so over-the-top that we don’t feel her pain but understand human nature and the evil that men (and women) do. Upstairs, Ferguson bounces around with the rubbery facial expressions of Don Knotts, balancing the physical with the attention to language that make such broadly drawn characters endure. And Hury and Liz Mikel shine in both shows, though especially as the doltish comic foils in Wives.
Kevin Moriarty directs both shows, with vastly different ethics: The sunny Parisian cafe society for Wives, a stark, industrial wasteland for Medea. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the progression of all love affairs, isn’t it?
Through March 29.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 6, 2015.