Step into the William Inge Memorial Theatre this week and you'll be stepping into the pre-Revolutionary French world of Moliere's "George Dandin."
Directed by assistant professor of theater Mechele Leon, "George Dandin" is a farce both broad and subtle in its execution of social commentary. Dandin is a wealthy but bourgeois man who believes marriage into an aristocratic family will garner him acceptance in their society. Foolishly, he does not recognize that birth, not wealth, is the currency of their social transactions.
Dandin (Justin Knudsen) discovers that his wife, Angelique (Christina Schafer), is being courted by Clitander (Brandon Ford), a member of the gentry. Appalled, Dandin turns for assistance to the Sotenvilles (Steve Ducey, Summer Eglinski), his wife's parents, whose contempt for him and his low birth prejudice them against his entreaties. What follows is a comical series of machinations by Dandin to catch his wife and by Angelique to maintain the appearance of innocence while setting her husband up as the fool.
Assisting in Dandin's routing are the servants Claudine (Katherine McRobbie), Lubin (Justin Anselmi) and Colin (Eric F. Avery). Their contempt for Dandin's social pretensions is as deep as the Sotenvilles'. Anselmi and McRobbie's comic timing is excellent, and Avery successfully radiates contempt for his low-born master.
Knudsen is a high-energy but complex Dandin, who could easily be played merely as the fool. He is funny and pathetic, clearly in over his head and at the mercy of social norms he does not understand. The thrust stage, with audience on three sides, allows Dandin to carry on his many asides to the audience and then "step back" into the action of the play, and Leon's staging makes successful use of the space.
Ford and Schafer also give charming performances as the lovers whose midnight meeting is a hilarious bit of farce in which all the characters participate briefly in the traditional device of mistaken identities.
As the Sotenvilles, Eglinski and Ducey convey a splendidly pompous manner even as they eye each other lustfully. All of the performers seem at ease most of the time with the stylized movement and choreography, even though the costumes are heavy and intricate.
Sandy Appleoff's costumes are stunning. The rich colors, design and textures of Clitander's and the Sotenvilles' clothes contrast with the modest brown cut of Dandin's coat, visually reinforcing the difference between their classes.
As a prelude, members of the instrumental Collegium Musicum, directed by Paul Laird, perform selections from the original score to "George Dandin" by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The Baroque instruments' sounds establish the play's 17th-century milieu. The performance ends with a funny, spirited dance, cleverly choreographed by Leslie Bennett.
Leon suggests that American audiences might empathize with Moliere's hapless Dandin and that believing "our purchasing power is not limited by social structures" is an illusion. However, since our purchasing power sometimes does lead to upward social movement, perhaps Dandin would thrive in our world where, for better or worse, the transactional currency has shifted from birth to wealth.
The show continues through Saturday