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Restoration bardware
The ART gooses The Provok’d Wife

Sir John Brute is a nasty unmade bed of a man — with a hollow leg for a bedpost. Drunk, disorderly, surly, and uncouth, he might be expected to thrill at any moderately hygienic woman’s coming within 50 feet of him. But Sir John, married for two years to the fetchingly if stiffly coiffed Lady Brute, a vision in side-arcing hoop skirt and flowered sweaters, is weary of his wife. Staggering on stage in déshabille and soon-to-be-bewigged bedhead after the stately minuet and modern prologue that open John Vanbrugh’s 1697 The Provok’d Wife at the American Repertory Theatre, he stomps downstage and confides in the audience: "What cloying meat is love — when matrimony’s the sauce to it!" The rest of this bawdy Restoration romp (with music) finds Sir John and his turn-of-the-18th-century affiliates stewing, spitting, and drowning in the sauce.

Vanbrugh was a contemporary of Wycherley and Congreve, but his work is revived far less than The Country Wife or The Way of the World. (The National Theatre mounted The Provok’d Wife in 1980, Sir Peter Hall’s troupe in 1997.) The most obvious reason for the disparity is that the other two plays are better. (On the other hand, how often have we seen them?) But there’s also the bugaboo that Sir John is such a repulsive, irredeemable character that cuckolding him, as Lady Brute contemplates, seems the only sane thing to do. At the ART, in a bravura performance rife with scatological detail, returning actor Bill Camp renders Sir John a mean, drink-befuddled piece of work who, done up in a big green gown and an unkempt wig, makes a homely but hilarious cross-dresser. Then, falling into a barely upright funk following the discovery of a couple of men in his wife’s closet, he’s so morose, he’s almost sympathetic.

In the 1690s, when The Provok’d Wife invoked condemnation in Anglican puritan Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, divorce was almost unheard of. The mutually miserable Brutes were chained to each other until he got cirrhosis or gave her some fatal form of the clap. From their stalemate the comedy unfolds, with Brute brutish to the point that his wife decides to encourage long-time admirer Constant, whose ostensibly love-immune buddy Heartfree is reluctantly drawn to Lady Brute’s smart niece, Bellinda. This infuriates female fop Lady Fancyfull, who’s taken an inadvertent yen to the Benedick-like Heartfree herself.

Directors wrestle with the dilemma of how to make classic plays geared to the morals and mores of an earlier time relevant to ours. At the ART, visiting British director Mark Wing-Davey tumbles this lusty work onto its back with legs in air, one foot flailing in the mannered, less-than-sanitary world of its writing, the other in a lewd, spare universe inspired by lurid red-light districts, ‘70s punk-rock fashion, and the furniture of Philippe Starck. Sir John wears a long leopard vest but reels around with his own personal spittoon.

Marina Draghici’s set — in which rectangular plexiglass boxes serving as anything from boudoir to squash court extrude from the side-stage doors of classic 17th-century theater design — is ingenious and stylish. Odder is Wing-Davey’s decision to marry Restoration-era London to 21st-century Cambridge by way of Virginia accents, ostensibly on the grounds that it was decadent Royalists fleeing Cromwell who had settled the Virginia colony. And the uncredited prologue attached to the play to connect its treatment of "Morality and Manners" to that of Bush-led America seems unnecessary. Spoken by Remo Airaldi in slacks and sweater as a group minuet swirls around him to the blast of enhanced harpsichord, the doodle concludes: "Were here on Brattle Street. It’s Art./Enough already. Let the provoking start." I agree.

Once Vanbrugh takes over, the production succeeds in invoking both the effete manners and the bodily immediacy of the day, where sexual desire warred not only with virtue but also with cooties of every description. We’re spared the compost with which Wing-Davey surrounded the stage for The Beaux’ Stratagem, but a late-night prowl by drunken nobles is played against Covent Garden carts of limp vegetables and an assignation in a pleasure garden takes place before masked whores mechanically copulating in glass cages. As for Sir John’s piggish return of the kisses he’s forced from his wife, vulgarity begins at home.

The actors, both homegrown and imported, are accomplished enough to pull off the play’s verbal duels of seduction and its balletic physical comedy, with Effie Johnson’s Scarlett O’Hara of a Lady Fancyfull, swirling and swanning in a series of elaborate wraps, plumes, and platform shoes, a particular delight. That and the irony that Vanbrugh could probably get the same rise out of Jerry Falwell that he did out of Jeremy Collier.

Issue Date: December 10 - 16, 2004
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