In 1675 William Wycherley wrote The Country Wife, a bawdy comedy of manners that pushed back against an 18-year stage ban instituted by a Puritan government. With the Restoration of the English monarchy after 1660, King Charles II ushered in an era of theatrical permissiveness that gave rise to Wycherley’s infamous work; a show considered to be so lewd and suggestive that is was declared unfit to be performed from 1753 to 1924. The Rude Mechanicals are fast-forwarding the timeline to bring The Country Wife to 1950s Manhattan. Directed by Alan Duda, this production provides a fresh take on Wycherley’s original Restoration comedy.
The plot of The Country Wife revolves around three men. The first is Harry Horner, played here by Chris Fominaya, who has devised a plan to get the ladies of the town interested in going to bed with him by pretending to be a eunuch. Fominaya strikes a good balance between the promiscuous Horner’s swagger and his act. Jaki Demarest plays Lady Fidget, the first of the wives to fall prey to Horner’s ploy. Demarest is hilarious in this role; both coy and flirtatious in turn. She is friendly with Horner’s other “marks”, Mrs. Squeamish—played by a simpering and mousy Christine Evangelista—and Spencer Dye’s Mrs. Dainty.
The second plot thread in The Country Wife involves the newly-married Jack Pinchwife (Josh Engel), whose jealousy and possessiveness cause him to keep his wife Margery (Erin Nealer) locked away from the sight of other men. Engel plays Jack admirably—very much inhabiting the mannerisms of someone who is on the verge of losing their temper at all times. Nealer’s Margery is both cunning and provincial, which causes problems for her controlling husband.
Lastly, we have the story of Frank Harcourt (Wes Dennis) and Alithea Pinchwife (Claudia Bach). Bach plays a charming Alithea—the long-suffering sister of Jack, engaged to the annoying and idiotic Mr. Sparkish (Paul Brinkley)—whose chance encounter with Harcourt throws her life off course. Dennis is a fascinating Harcourt and has fantastic comedic timing, making his role as a lovelorn suitor much more engaging.
The cast is rounded out by supporting actors Hans Zarpaf as the bug-eyed and incredulous Dr. Quack, Joe Kubinski as Lady Fidget’s husband Jaspar and Erin Gallalee as Alithea’s maid Lucy. Gallalee has a small role in this play, but her comfortable and pointed presence in her scenes made me want to see more of her.
There was an interesting framing device added to this show that worked very well in counteracting some of the limitations of the performance space in the Greenbelt Arts Center. Audience members were told that they were part of a “live studio audience” and the “On Stage Manager”, Liana Olear, would count down to filming at the beginning of each scene. This allowed the crew to strike set pieces and props in full light without awkward pauses. Imitating a studio setting was a very clever way of assuring smooth transitions and worked well for this production.
The set design seems to have been a group effort. It was sleek and evoked the mid-century modern style which has come and gone as fashionable multiple times since the 1950s. Costumer Spencer Dye, who also plays Mrs. Dainty, does a marvelous job of rounding out the setting with her bold 50s styles and bright pops of color. If you enjoy the fashion of that era, you won’t be disappointed with what you see. Both men and women were outfitted in clothes that stood out in a way that emphasized the glamour and uniqueness of the 50s.
Critics have long argued about the meaning behind The Country Wife. As I see it, The Rude Mechanicals really drive home the differences between Horner, Pinchwife and Harcourt. Horner embodies a toxic promiscuity, while Pinchwife’s controlling nature and jealousy land him at the other extreme. Harcourt, on the other hand, represents and “middle ground” of sorts. He is truly in love with Alithea. The Country Wife is a charming production filled with shenanigans. Does anyone get a happy ending? You’ll have to watch and find out.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Country Wife runs through August 17, 2019, at The Rude Mechanicals playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center—123 Centerway in Greenbelt, MD. Tickets can be purchased online.