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Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah in
The Provok'd Wife
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
Newly affluent and enleisured, the swells of post-Restoration England were desperate for divertissements. Into the breach leapt John Vanbrugh. Imprisoned as a young soldier and accused spy in France in 1688-92, he's rumored to have kept himself amused during his Bastille sojourn by drafting The Provok'd Wife, a farce about contemporary marital mores -- or rather, the lack thereof.

In 1697, the play took London by storm. As rendered by the American Repertory Theatre, it remains as fresh (in the transgressive sense) as ever. Though A.R.T. has never before assayed a Restoration comedy in its 25-year history, the company has shown a steady penchant for modernist kink; here, that penchant pays off splendidly. We may have a hard time imagining the assignations that occurred in London's lovely parks in those days. (How did they manage all those stays?) But transform the stately elms into storefront windows such as those in Amsterdam's red light district, as set designer Marina Draghici has done, and we get the picture -- especially with the prostitutes masked to make them look like blow-up sex dolls.

Draghici's brilliant set (two banks of modules packing all sorts of surprises) and Gabriel Berry's era-bending costumes ('50s florals meet 17th-century furbelows) help to carry us through the somewhat tedious, 90-minute opening segment, which consists primarily of exposition. This long interlude also affords us time in which to adjust to director Mark Wing-Davey's disconcerting decision to impose Southern American accents on the cast. His rationale is that a cadre of "distressed cavaliers" emigrated to Virginia in the 1640s and, therefore, an evolved patrician accent from that area might best bridge the intercontinental gap. The problem is that the performers' accents flail all over the map, lacking any socioeconomic indicators.

Playing Lady Brute, the much put-upon young wife of an aptly named sot, Kate Forbes succeeds with a slight but at least consistent hill-country twang; but Effie Johnson, as the self-styled society belle Lady Fancyfull, goes over the top with a trashy N'Awlins drawl. As Lord Brute, Bill Camp neatly eludes the predicament by speaking the universal language of a drunken slur. He also manages to suggest a soft side to this craven bully who likes to rail, in his wife's presence, about the misery of marriage. (Could it be that the beast just wants to be loved?)

Lady Brute and her bluestocking niece Bellinda, played with remarkable assurance by A.R.T. graduate student Deborah Knox Meschan, giggle and conspire like sorority girls over the prospect of finding illicit romance -- and, true to the house style, there's a suggestion during their frolicsome bedtime confidences that their goal might be much closer at hand than they realize. ("Would I were a man for your sake," says the aunt, straddling her bouncy charge.)

The central conceit of nature vs. reason, libido vs. virtue doesn't survive the transit over the centuries all that vividly. The Provok'd Wife really only comes to life toward the finale, when company veterans Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah -- playing a dominatrix French maid and a besotted butler -- plot to bring down their supposed betters. If Vanbrugh were still around, he might well be inspired to give this conniving pair their own play.

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