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Restoration marriage
The ART gets provok’d by John Vanbrugh

Frippery and foppery aside, there’s often great depth in English Restoration comedies and dramas. Writers in the reign of Charles II were indeed preoccupied with sex and class, but they also show insight into psychology, motivation, and human eccentricity. Dramatist John Vanbrugh may be less well known than some of his peers, who include William Congreve, William Wycherly, and Aphra Behn. But Vanbrugh’s 1697 The Provok’d Wife, which receives a rare revival by the American Repertory Theatre starting this week, is a pithy and modern comedy of domestic discord. Begun while the writer was incarcerated in Paris for political reasons, it boasts a graceful structure that foreshadows Vanbrugh’s later calling as the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

The Provok’d Wife boasts a veritable village of co-conspirators, all focused on the marital melange of Lady Brute and her aggrieved husband, Sir John. "What cloying meat is love — when matrimony’s the sauce to it!", he declares early on. As the play unfolds, both parties are eager to stray, aided and encouraged by their staff and confederates. "It’s like a buddy movie, with two girls and two guys," says British director Mark Wing-Davey, who helms the ART production, of the interplay among the Brutes and their main confidants. "And you have these gender struggles that are then mirrored by the strange below-stairs relationship between the servants, Razor and Mademoiselle."

When it debuted, the play was excoriated for both its cynical wit and its immorality, but many themes will resonate with a contemporary audience. These characters "are the leisured classes," says Wing-Davey of the Brutes and their sort. "What occupations do they have other than thinking about relationships all the time? That was a time when there were vast disparities between reputation and behavior." Thus, Lady Brute, despite her dissatisfaction with her husband and her attraction to a gentleman called Constant, cannot quite bring herself to act. Sir John is another paradox — "An Alpha male who’s a coward," Wing-Davey calls him. But Sir John isn’t just a huntin’-and-fishin’ grandee; he gets in touch with his softer side during a cross-dressing scene. "He’s liberated by dressing up as a woman and becomes more outrageous and more full of himself," the director explains.

Playing Sir John is Elliot Norton Award–winning actor Bill Camp, who first appeared at the ART in 1993. He says that "one of the challenges of the character is he’s such a beast — he’s such a nasty man." Yet at the same time, "there’s something that evolves in him as he spends more time in his wife’s clothes."

Camp worked with Wing-Davey in Troilus and Cressida in Central Park, and he enjoys the director’s scholarly preparations, which include assigning research topics to the actors that pertain to the period in which the play is set. (Although he describes himself as a "big recontextualizer," Wing-Davey is also avid for authentic atmosphere. For a past production of The Beaux’ Stratagem, he surrounded the stage with rotting garbage.) Camp researched Samuel Pepys, who had his own episodes of cross-dressing. The actor found an entry where Pepys and friends spend a night carousing and then raid a friend’s closet, "where the women’s clothes are, and dress up like women singing and dancing around the house, having sport."

Wing-Davey sees the play as a constant struggle between formalism and nature as the characters come to terms with their desires. "The Restoration period constantly reflects that conflict," he says. "We have these urges, and we have society or morality to keep these things in check. But at the same time, the things that keep these things in check may also be doing us damage."

The Provok’d Wife is presented by the American Repertory Theatre November 27 through December 26 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Tickets are $12 to $72; call (617) 547-8300.

Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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