On Dec. 26, 1662, a new play opened at the Palais Royal Theatre in Paris. It was the work of a compelling young playwright who was unfazed by controversy. Centuries later, the same play premieres at the new AUC Campus Theater in New Cairo to inaugurate the Malak Gabr Arts Theater.
The play “L’ecole des femmes (School for Wives) was the first work by Moliere to receive significant attention. It centers on Arnolphe, a middle-aged man s quest for a wife. Because of his fear of women, he decides to create his own ideal by molding the mind of a four-year-old girl he has adopted.
Emerging 17 years later from the convent, the girl Agnes, played by Dahlia Abou Azama, is innocent and naïve; so naïve, in fact, that, were she to decide to take a lover (Arnolphe’s greatest fear), she might not even know how to do it behind his back.
Director Frank Bradley staged the work with British accents, not French ones. The play also uses popular British translator Ranjit Bolt’s adaptation, set in rhyming couplets. The piece naturally, even in Bolt’s admission, takes liberties with Moliere’s version, which is perhaps the conceptual springboard from which Bradley embarked on a flood of transgressions.
Even old-fashioned costumes appear more British than French, and strangely more turn of the 20th century than late 17th century, when the events of the play occur. And much like British notions of private space, the setting, originally in a square in a provincial city, has been changed to that of Arnolphe’s private home. There is then the matter of a reoccurring barbershop quartet (an African American tradition circa the 1940s) inserted in the play as a choir. With saccharin melodies, they obtusely comment on the plays progression. Unfortunately, they do so painfully out of tune.
Despite its many hodgepodge, cute yet incomprehensible elements, the play is enjoyable. It has a slow start, yet a somewhat didactic argument between Arnolphe and his friend Chrysalde ends with a stunning intervention.
The curtain is lifted, revealing the lovely and apparently costly set by Stencil Campbell: A whimsical fairy-tale like place, where Agnes’ original convent is replaced by a large translucent egg at the top of Arnolphe’s home, an oval room where she is quietly kept.
The egg, which opens with swinging doors, soon comes to serve as the balcony to which her lover Horace comes to call. The set is revealed full of foliage, a small river with water, arching bridges and a tree house. I nearly gasped.
Against this backdrop, silly characters take their turns. There are the adorable, dim-witted characters of Georgette and Alain, played charmingly by Sara Abdel Razak and Nezar Alderazi. Working for Arnolphe, they continually blunder in attempts to keep young Horace away.
Horace is played with ingénue by Waleed Hammed. Then there is Chysalde, the epitome of the mature intelligent woman, played with dignity by Leila Saad. Abou Azama convincingly plays Agnes, and Arnolphe is brilliantly acted by theater professor Mahmoud El Lozy, who manages to upstage the entire student cast. His scenes with Agnes are the most poignant of all.
The two manage to impart the seriousness inside Moliere’s comedy pertaining to oppression of women. In one scene, Arnolphe ties a corset around Agnes’ waist, pulling the strings tight behind her back, and asks her to read from a small book on the duties of a wife. She obeys, gasping for air.
With a finale beginning with the sentence, “Apologies to Moliere , the AUC production caps its afore-mentioned liberties by rewriting the ending. The new one unfortunately reads more like a sophomoric in-joke, than a justified tinkering with a classic work.
Within all these details there is the larger issue of Bradley’s choice of this particular play at this particular moment. One could not help but wonder if this is a kind of veiled comment on Egyptian society, with its actual and perceived issues of gender oppression and its blanketed sexuality. While they are interesting questions, a production of this magnitude could not be made responsible for answering them.
AUC’s “School for Wives is at best, cute. If it did intend to comment on Egyptian society, it’s somewhat fitting that the AUC should use a 17th century French play as a vehicle for its reflection. From its place in the desert, with its pristine buildings and fresh, far-from-Cairo air, it is now all too comfortably isolated.