British actor, director and educator Mark Wing-Davey brings a dream project to Red Bank, with a bold new realization of the 17th century comedy THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES that opens this week at Two River Theater.
When he’s donning the mortarboard of serious academia, Mark Wing-Davey serves as chair of the graduate acting program at NYU’s venerable Tisch School of the Arts. When he puts on an altogether different hat (or head), he’s the actor best identified with the role of the double-header despot Zaphod Beeblebrox, in various radio, video and stage dramatizations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of sci-fi satires by Douglas Adams.
An in-demand director from coast (UC Berkeley’s Pericles) to coast (the McCarter Theatre premiere of Greensboro: A Requiem with Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Brit-born Wing-Davey has been hitching a ride to Red Bank of late; reuniting with former Public Theater colleagues John Dias and Michael Hurst for a dream project of sorts: the 17th century comedy The School for Wives. The 1662 classic by the French farcemaster Molière is onstage now at Two River Theater as the first “back to school” session of the new 2014-2015 mainstage season.
The story of wealthy Arnolphe, the naïve young thing that he cultivates as his future Perfect Wife — and the ways in which the carefully micro-managed scheme backfires on the schemer — is on stage for three more preview performances (Wednesday at 1 pm and 7 pm; Thursday at 8 pm); opening on Friday night and continuing with a mix of matinee and evening shows through October 5. Stage and screen character actor Robert Stanton heads the cast as Arnolphe, with Phillipa Soo as the not-so naive Agnes, and Korey Jackson as her hopeful suitor Horace. They’ll be performing the best-known English translation of the original French text, by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Richard Wilbur.
Check the Two River YouTube page for a video in which the director details the creation of the show’s distinctive visual conceptualization — including the “phallic” features and “pubic triangle” of the set design by Tony winner David Gallo — then take it around the corner for the redbankgreen Drama Desk conversation with Mark Wing-Davey.
redbankgreen: The last time that Two River Theater Company took on a play by Moliere, they transplanted TARTUFFE to a sort of DALLAS, oil dynasty setting. Then prior to that they did an adaptation of THE MISER set on Wall Street in the Roaring 20s. Do you think that old Moliere’s plays remain a tough sell to American audiences; that they need to be given some familiar point of reference in the staging?
MARK WING-DAVEY: Moliere is actually more known in the United States than in the U.K. There’s a certain amount of ease with the material that Shakespeare doesn’t have for American audiences…it could be that the translation makes it all feel more accessible.
The School for Wives is actually structured in a way that makes sense to modern audiences. It’s actually quite fantastic; quite similar to the kind of structure you would find in a commercial TV drama, with the lead-up to the breaks, and a payoff that occurs in the final minutes.
redbankgreen: As it stands, you’ve opted to maintain the setting of this play in France, as opposed to the Old West or outer space — although it’s a mid-20th century France; with a look that’s reportedly been inspired by the films of Jean Luc Godard and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson…
There’s a Frenchness to this play at its heart…even though it’s translated into English, with American actors…and we don’t do it with French accents. So even though it’s been removed from the time in which it was created, it was important to preserve that quality of Frenchness. The setting we’re working in here is the late 1950s and early 1960s; a time of intellectual ferment in France.
If you happen to know Godard’s early films you might pick up on something here and there…particularly A Married Woman, which was interesting visually, and which has some kind of resonance with School for Wives; playing with ideas of what it is to be a woman. And with Cartier-Bresson, I was keen on photography in the 70s, and Bresson in particular impressed me in terms of his images of people.
redbankgreen: So how did you come to be attached to this project? Did they offer it to you, or had you been shopping the idea for the production around to a stage that could accommodate it?
I’ve known (Two River artistic director) John Dias for years, and to a certain extent he asked me if I would care to direct this. I came down from the city…it is down, is it?…and saw one of the shows at the theater last season, and that began the dialogue on this project. I’m a big, big fan of Two River Theater…a combination of the leadership here, and the quality of the work. It’s really a pretty quick commute from New York, and they treat you like a large organization. In a good way!
I’m effectively based in New York City, because of my teaching schedule, but I have a house in the north of France, actually — about eight fields from the sea, with a real peasant sort of quality, in a square provincial town. And I can tell you that the French wear their culture quite heavily on their sleeves. In fact, John had no idea that I had a home in France.
redbankgreen: Given how busy you’ve been keeping yourself Stateside, we’re not sure how often you get back to Europe these days — but we’re pleased to see you continue your affiliation with the HITCHHIKER’S franchise, and your signature role of Beeblebrox.
I have enormous affection for that part, and when they did a live radio show production recently I was very happy to travel back there and be a part of it.
redbankgreen: Well, with all respect to the otherwise wonderful Sam Rockwell, it’s a part that you own for the ages. And we’re intrigued to see you put your stamp on Moliere as well.
To be working on The School for Wives as a director represents an exciting discovery for me. There’s a deep, exquisite relationship there between power and nature, and it’s got much to say about self-knowledge.
The way I work is quite gentle, while involving things like peripheral, tonal influences. But believe me when I say that School for Wives will survive me! It will still exist for others to have a go at.
Take it here for tickets ($20 – $65) to the Two River Theater Company production of The School for Wives.