THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (L'ÉCOLE DES FEMMES) by Molière (Théâtre français de Toronto). At Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). To April 23. Pwyc-$57. 416-534-6604. See listing. Rating: NNN
Few classical writers make as good use of traditional commedia dell'arte plots as Molière.
In L'École Des Femmes (The School For Wives), he elaborates on one of its essential stories, the old man who loves a young woman who in turn loves a young man. This sort of triangle always works to the advantage of youth.
Director Diana Leblanc's production for Théâtre français de Toronto gives heart to the laughs, notably by humanizing the central figure, Arnolphe (Alain Doom), who plans to wed his ward, Agnès (Geneviève Dufour); she, however, has fallen for Horace (Jean-Michel LeGal), son of Arnolphe's friend Oronte (Robert Godin).
The repeated narrative device here is that Horace doesn't know Arnolphe's intentions and keeps confiding his plans to steal Agnès from her unknown tyrannical guardian. Arnolphe foils one plan after another, until a plot twist at the end brings the young people together.
Doom's a fine Arnolphe, fearful of a cuckold's horns and increasingly jealous and dyspeptic as the smug man who can't control his young ward. Du-four turns in one of the production's best performances, sweet and innocent without being sappy, and ultimately strong-willed.
Setting the action in 1940s Montreal, Leblanc intends to give a Canadian flavour to this universal tale of love, but other than a set that includes the cross on Mount Royal, period costumes and having Arnolphe's low-comedy servants (France Gauthier and Jean-Simon Traversy) speak joual, little is gained. There's a lovely comic scene with Godin as a shortsighted notary, but it would work as well in any period.
If the production, which offers English surtitles at some performances, occasionally seems laboured, blame the playwright; he relies on the contrivance of Horace's plotting and Arnolphe's counter-plotting a few too many times.