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Keeping one's garden unplowed - R.H. Joseph

In a brilliant stroke director Karen Robinson has imbued Moli?re's hilarious play "The School for Wives" with the madcap abandon of vaudeville.

Never is a hat removed without flourish, a cane raised without flamboyance, or a gesture proffered without panache.

And the costumes! Sure, Chris Kayser's infinitely debonair beard and moustache speak volumes about the preening peacock he portrays, but his character's presence truly becomes a testament to buffoonery by virtue of an extravagant overcoat designed by Christine Turbitt. The designer proves equally imaginative with every other garment on stage.

So let's start adding the merits of the production lest we lose track.

We have a scabrous indictment of the male ego composed in deliciously ribald rhyme but freed from the insistent demands of meter by the director and actors. Further, the 17th century work is presented in a mellifluous world premiere translation by Ranjit Bolt.

Then there is the vaudevillian context which imbues the performance with a gaiety transcending the written word. And finally, there are the actors. Can it be the company's never been better?

Kayser, gifted, multi-talented, is at the top of his game this season. Perhaps the jaded are defined by their blas? response to excellence but unless you count yourself among those for whom exposure to the superior induces ennui, you owe it to yourself to watch the man work.

Better still, those accustomed to Kayser's abilities will be delighted to watch him share the stage with Daniel May. If Kayser's performance resonates with echoes of Terry Thomas and Jack Lemmon, May's brings to mind Zeppo Marx and Dick Powell.

May has never been better. A song and dance man in his soul, every glide, every pirouette is a celebration of that halcyon period between the two world wars when life in America was just a bowl of cherries. Would that we all could dress in top hat and tails and trip the light fantastic.

In truth, until the appearance of Agnes (Karan Kendrick), though the dialogue is witty the contributions of May and Kayser carry those of the playwright. There are even a few moments when the otherwise terrific production lags a wee bit.

But with the arrival of Agnes (Kendrick) all that changes. As physically demonstrative as her leading men, Kendrick complements their fluidity with her own. No doubt a characterization envisioned by the director, even the best laid plans fall short when undermined by an actor without sufficient chops.

Kendrick's got what it takes n and more. As Agnes tiptoes demurely, her arms suggestive of the style of acting that allowed silent film star Lillian Gish to appear so vulnerable, it is she who provides a substance (deliberately) lacking in her feckless suitors.

And it is with the introduction of Agnes that our attention is drawn away from the clowning (deft though it is) and into the plot.

It is an age of cuckoldry with all the attendant humiliation for those men whose wives have found recreation elsewhere. Being of particularly diminished character and insignificant consequence, Arnolphe (Kayser) has attempted to thwart the efforts of back door men one and all by taking Agnes (Kendrick) as his ward whilst extremely young.

Taking pains to leave the delicate lass cloistered, untutored, and innocent of the ways of the world, the scoundrel boasts of his absolute confidence that when the time comes for marriage Agnes will be pure as driven snow.

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition.

It turns out Little Miss Innocent is already being pursued by Horace (May) who, having wended his way into her heart, trembles with all the anticipation the contemplation of life's sweet mystery may bring. Worse still, Arnolphe is the young man's confidant.

Having no idea that Arnolphe is Agnes's protector, though aware there is such a one guarding the sanctity of that budding flower, Horace shares his plans of conquest with Arnolphe.

Kayser has a ball with this. Arnolphe is distraught, beside himself, at wits end. Horace's every articulated stratagem a dagger, the only thing that could possibly make matters worse is Agnes's complicity in this back door love. Guess what!

Things get positively riotous at times. Aside from those couple of brief moments described above, this production is a side splitter. There's a lot of talent on this stage and you can be the beneficiary.

Indicative of the quality of actors at hand, Chris Ensweiler, absolutely convincing as the conniving snake Don John in the company's concurrent production of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" (also marvelous!), creates a character diametrically opposed to the aforementioned rat.

What fun it must be for an individual to explore the extremes of his or her craft. And what pride one must feel in accomplishing the task so admirably.

Imagine the fun when an entire company engages in such an exploration collectively as is the case in repertory. The enormous fun experienced by the Georgia Shakespeare Festival ensemble leaps from the stage and takes a clean shot at your funny bone. Allow yourself the pleasure.