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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 407-408
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The Country Wife
The Country Wife. By William Wycherley. The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, D.C. 2 April 2000.
Often considered the bawdiest of Restoration comedies, Wycherley's play introduces Horner, who claims to be impotent so that husbands and guardians will suppose him a safe companion for their women. The Country Wife has been revived more often in the twentieth century than almost any of the Restoration's tamer works. But contemporary productions have often exhibited signs of unease, initially about the play's raciness and then, especially in the United States, about a culture and linguistic style foreign to actors and audiences. That unease has taken the form of tarted up productions, awash in period-style costume and gesture or broad physical play and stage business riddled with pranks.
The Shakespeare Theatre's production proved that the comedy can be played without these distractions. Director Keith Baxter, who played Horner to Maggie Smith's Margery at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1969, opposed updating the play, a [End Page 407] position he expressed in Asides, the Shakespeare Theatre's newsletter. But his approach to period style was temperate. Only the actors playing Sir Jasper Fidget and Sparkish were decked out in full foppish regalia: periwigs, brocaded coats and breeches, the adornments of lace, ribbons, tassels, and bows, and two of the trademark props of the Restoration gentleman, the handkerchief and the cane. By contrast, the long-haired wigs of Horner, Harcourt, and Dorilant were straight and straggly, and they wore outfits suitable for a Cavalier fighting force during the Interregnum: relatively plain short jackets and breeches, with high boots instead of stockings, garters, and low-heeled pumps. Robert Perdziola's costumes, then, conveyed character, particularly the vanity and silliness of Sparkish and Sir Jasper and their self-promoting attentiveness to king and court. Baxter's selective use of period-style movement expressed character as well. Although the gentlemen bowed or kissed one another on the lips and the ladies curtsied and walked with the grace necessitated in part by tight corsets and billowing skirts, they eschewed period-style gesturing for more casual and familiar postures when alone or in same-sex gatherings. The production made it clear that physical displays of courtesy and balletic stances were public manners that few of the gentry sustained when not in mixed company.
Director William Gaskill once said about his production of The Recruiting Officer, presented at the National Theatre in 1963, that all he had wanted to do "was to make the text sound as if it was being spoken by real people in recognizable situations." Baxter's production belongs to this naturalistic tradition. To a small, superb group of Shakespeare Theatre regulars; Floyd King (Sparkish), Ted van Griethuysen (Sir Jasper), David Sabin (Pinchwife), and Emery Battis (Quack) were added several talented players, most notably Tessa Auberjonois (Margery) and British actor Leigh Lawson (Horner). Lawson's Horner successfully combined sensuality with cold calculation. Wearing a dressing gown and displaying his own short hair in the play's first act, for example, he ate breakfast with gusto, remaining focused on his food while Lady Fidget and her sister-in-law were introduced.
For all the selfishness of Margery's own actions, Auberjonois's interpretation prompted sympathy, suggesting youth and inexperience rather than stupidity as the source of the character's behavior. For example, when Horner, Dorilant, and Harcourt spotted Margery dressed as a boy--her husband's tactic for shielding her from other men--they rained kisses on her in order to aggravate Pinchwife. The kisses were for the most part chaste pecks on the cheeks, to which Auberjonois responded gleefully, as if she were having her face licked by puppies. Auberjonois's performance in the letter scene was endearingly childlike as well. When Margery seized the opportunity to compose a letter to Horner, she excitedly practiced dance steps, sprawled on the floor, and smudged her face with ink while writing. Sabin's Pinchwife also evoked sympathy by stressing the age gap between husband and wife and the pathos of...