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MARVELOUS MOLIERE

SCHOOL FOR WIVES *** 1/2

WHAT: Derek Mahon's version of a Moliere classic.

WHEN: Through Oct. 21

WHERE: Irish Classical Theatre Company, 625 Main St.

TICKETS: $10 to $29

INFO: 853-4282

Irish Classical Theatre Company launched its new season last week with a rousing yet nicely chiseled production of Moliere's "School for Wives" in a trimmed-down version by Irish poet Derek Mahon.

Packed with wacky off-rhymes and updated puns and references, Mahon's adaptation transforms the main character, Arnolphe (Tim Newell) into a history-transcending reactionary who puts down such future figures as novelist Stendhal and "what's-her-name who smoke(s) cigars/and talk(s) sedition in Left Bank bars." As for Agnes (Elba Sett-Camara), Arnolphe's captive ward and wife-to-be, she turns quickly - perhaps too quickly - from being a convent-sheltered innocent to something more like a free-thinking feminist blessedly unburdened by limits of the masculine world.

If you don't like this sort of messing with Moliere, catchy updates like, "I think of you as my real pop/Let's hide here in the corner and eavesdrop!" may get under your skin. The French town of Avignon (the play's setting) becomes Avignyawn better to rhyme with Goings-on. I thought it was funny, but even forgiving purists may not - especially when the unblushing Mahon pushes it to the brink of Ogden Nash silliness by making behaviour into behavieux in order to end a line with mon vieux.

Verse-tinkering aside, the production is a marvel. Director Fortunato Pezzimenti finds a pace for the action that moves with or against the flow of the verse, depending on the situation. What makes Arnolphe, Horace (Michael Amico) and Agnes funny and endearing at once is that they hold tightly to their characters even as they assume the most absurd postures and ridiculous expressions.

Newell is near perfect as the plotting protagonist. Fussy, flustered, pompous and haughty at turns, he prances, strides or wanders in little pinched circles as Arnolphe progressively loses his grip on Agnes. At times, he gives the audience a perplexed Jack Benny stare (he was Benny in Mark Humphrey's "Mr. Benny" last May). Newell is amicably joined by Amico, an engaging actor who is amazingly accomplished for someone so young. A great Mutt and Jeff comic pair, the lanky Amico must bend at the knees just to look Newell straight in the face. Enrique, Chrysalde and Ornonte, the straight men of the play, are adroitly handled by Dee Perry, Tom Loughlin and Christopher Standart, respectively.

Save for two clowns, who do what clowns do, no one overplays his or her part. By making the decision to have these two servants be mask-wearing clowns, the director tossed out any possibility that they might appear as passably real, even if hopelessly stupid, human beings. Their baggy clown attire (quite subtle in Geraldine Duskin's design of faded fauve colors) and manic clown rolling and miming spell out the limits of their characters. Few will argue with John Warren and Kate LoConti's interpretation, however. They are a synchronized riot.

The mayhem of these two characters does not divert Pezzimenti from the play's larger comic irony. Arnolphe's plan is to shut up his future wife "in a convent in the sticks," telling the nuns "that her curriculum should be designed to make her sweet and dumb." But it is this very unworldly innocence - captured with a beguilingly contrived coyness by Sett-Camara - that makes this sweet lamb of a woman so inflaming to Horace.

Arnolphe has created a monster of innocence. By play's end this monster will soundly punish those who would manipulate the natural course of love.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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