Amid the animal noises, dropped trousers, inexplicable accents and skull-smacking slapstick, PaperHouse Theatre presents a lively and gracefully delivered updating of Moliere’s “The School for Wives.” The show satisfies two audiences: those who like Keystone Kops mustaches or actors who make snarky asides to the audience and those who like iambic pentameter spoken with wit and rhythm.
The first audience gets much of director Nicia Carla’s attention, but the second has plenty to enjoy. The playbill doesn’t say, but I’d guess this version comes from American poet Richard Wilbur, Moliere’s pre-eminent translator into English.
Carla has staged it in the round, mostly on a segment of flooring that looks like an early Jackson Pollock drip painting emblazoned with French fleur-de-lis. The audience Friday night sat on four sides of Duke Energy Theater, with cast members drifting among the crowd and speaking to performers on the tiny stage. (The spillover audience in the balcony missed this peripheral action.)
The play has the usual simple Moliere premise: Middle-aged Arnolphe (Joe Copley) has raised his ward in a convent, hoping to keep her pure and ignorant until he marries her. But young Agnes (Alexandria Lee) falls for the daughter of Arnolphe’s old friend; the daughter (Andrea King) returns her affection and unwittingly asks Arnolphe to help her make off with Agnes.
Carla hasn’t just used gender-blind casting with King, putting a woman into a part written for a man: She has turned “Horace” into a lesbian who opens a new world to the convent-raised ward. (“We couldn’t live together yet, Agnes,” she declares. “This is North Carolina!”)
This twist lends spice to Agnes’ explanation that Horace possesses alluring qualities impossible for her guardian to match. It also lends a bitter flavor to Arnolphe’s argument that marriage wipes away all traces of sexual sin. Fine, says Agnes: Let me marry the woman I love. Moliere obviously didn’t intend this interpretation, but it adds currency to the show.
Copley delivers a fine mixture of exasperation, real (if selfish) longing and desperation, as well as the cynicism of a man who believes every husband but himself is destined to be deceived. Lee can be innocent without cloying; King has buoyancy and rough charm.
Philip Robertson and Jennie Greenfield play multiple small roles, distinguished mainly by odd stage business or props (a funny hat, a stammer) and the tendency to draw on a blackboard at the back of the hall. I didn’t get the point of the blackboard, but the people giggling at these antics apparently did.