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L’Ecole’ takes viewers to school

Analise Lipari | Friday, February 3, 2006

Can the work of a man nearly 400 years senior to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students prove entertaining in this modern age? The Notre Dame Romance Languages department firmly argues “oui!” with the latest of their annual French performances, Molière’s “L’Ecole des Femmes.”

The funny, satirical play describes the mishaps of Arnolphe, a shrewd and wealthy Frenchman who, in contrast to Molière’s other works, is far more intelligent than his servants Georgette and Helene. Arnolphe has spent the last decade raising a young girl, Agnes, to someday love him with blind faithfulness as his future bride.

Unfortunately for Arnolphe, when Agnes comes of age she does fall in love – with Horace, the dashing young son of Oronte, Arnolph’s dearest friend. What results is a witty look at love and life, with a dash of zany comedy thrown in.

“Chaos ensues, but, like all Moliere plays, all’s well that ends well,” says Notre Dame senior Anne Macrander, who plays Georgette.

Professor Paul McDowell, who plays Oronte, has orchestrated the performance of French plays at Notre Dame in conjunction with his “French Theater Production” class since 1991. Since that time the works performed change annually, as last year’s production was Molière’s final work, “Les Fourberies de Scapin.”

What’s interesting about the performance is that in a university, community and nation whose most prominent language is English, the work is to be firmly and deftly acted out in its original French. To McDowell and his students, this is one of the show’s best features.

“Maybe the biggest “effect” [of keeping the original language] that our production has is that spectators have a unique opportunity to appreciate the genius of Molière in French,” he says.

To the cast, it is Molière’s universal meaning behind the words that can attract both speakers of French and their counterparts.

“Our whole task here in acting, as I see it, is to become the kind of people who would use language in this way, such that it is no longer so much the words themselves but the effects they work on us before our audience that allows us to work the effect on them. It’s a beautiful thing,” said senior Danny Kettinger, who plays Arnolphe, or “Monsieur de la Souche.”

In the climate of debate over topics such as academic freedom and free speech that has been so pervasive of late, it is ironic that a centuries-old work such as “L’Ecole des Femmes” would prove to be topical. In fact, McDowell sees the context of the work as somewhat familiar.

“This play touched a raw nerve among Molière’s enemies in France at the time,” McDowell says. “Molière was not lacking for enemies: in the Church, among his rivals, doctors, lawyers, and in certain elite circles, all of whom were objects of Molière’s satire at some point. He fought like hell to defend his theatre and himself against attacks of immorality and obscenity for ‘L’Ecole des femmes.'”

Senior Mary Twetten, who plays young Agnes, agrees that the play is continually relevant, especially in today’s environment. To Twetten, the themes of Agnes’ storyline, of her independence and freedom from an abusive relationship through love, prove both modern and, interestingly, Catholic.

“I think this play is extremely relevant to today’s society and to our situation at Notre Dame, as a positive and Catholic way to counteract the terrible abuse and stereotyping of women that still exists today,” Twetten says.

“I think it’s really great that we’re able to perform this play at this point in time, with all this discussion about the role of art and its power to address the problems of abuse (particularly of women) that has arisen from Father Jenkins’ addresses.”

Ultimately, it is a strong testament to the power of Molière’s works that the play has survived to be performed by McDowell’s students today.

“Even after 350 years, love stories never get old,” Macrander says. “Plus, Arnolphe gets beat with baguettes. Everyone loves baguettes.”

There are performances at DPAC Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.