If you enjoy a good laugh, then resistance is futile. It may be some 400 years since the French playwright and actor Molière penned Les Femmes savantes(The Learned Ladies) but time has done nothing to diminish its wit and wisdom. In fact, considering the state of American politics at the moment, nothing could be more timely. Molière aimed his barbs at the excesses of the upper classes and their pretensions. As we guffaw at the characters on stage, are we really laughing at the spoiled class and its contemporary pretensions to care for the poor? Or making fun of some people’s self indulgent fantasies? There’s a lot more than a belly full of laughs beneath the surface of genteel word play that marks this work from 1672. And the updated translation in verse by Richard Wilbur, enables this play to be a people-pleasing comedy even as it speaks truth to privilege.
By a stroke of good fortune Wilbur was in attendance yesterday afternoon at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where he and director Tina Packer held a talkback following the show. Wilbur joked that “It’s much easier to create the couplets that make up the dialogue if you do it in French.” He first put the script of this French farce in Packer’s hands 35 years ago. It has not changed much since. No need.
Packer picked up the script again this year for this production, and soon Wilbur’s witty dialogue was collaborating with her theatricality. Packer reached into her arsenal and came up with slapstick, British busker business and several dozen other theatrical devices. The pairing of the literate with the theatrical made for two hours of nonstop laughter.
The Learned Ladies is an amazing play. As each man and woman enters, bejeweled, bewigged and replete with regal bearing in the their billowing costumes, they flounce and jounce around the stage. The women manipulate acres of fabric while the men content themselves with generously detailed waistcoats. Designed by the imaginative Govane Lohbauer, I felt compelled to consider the loss of so many silkworms,cotton boles and acres of satin ribbons and golden threads to cosset the upper classes of the 17th Century.
Aided by some of the wittiest repartee ever devised (the word repartee originally comes from a French fencing term meaning “an answering blow or thrust”) the characters are blown about the stage in a super-storm of rarified quatrains. In Wilbur’s translation, the dialogue is in steady couplets yet it is almost like an improv, with one actor rhyming their line with that of the line that preceded it. All of the characters speak in this fashion with the exception of the Maid, who finds plain words do a better job of getting to the heart of the matter.
With a family divided into pompous poseurs, for whom style was everything, and realists, whose common sense and honest desires seemed overwhelmed, the stage was set for the clash of ideas and ideals.
They are all members of a family headed by the controlling wife, Philamonte (Dana Harrison) and her spineless husband Chrysale (Daniel Joeck). Harrison’s voice is authoritative, able to stop a raging bull in its tracks. Yet with Harrison in the role, it is only half her power – she also delivered a glare that was Medusa like in its intensity. Argue with her and you were subjected to mock outrage followed by a blinding eyelid-raised chin-thrust that turned an order into a viperous threat that none dare refuse. Especially her husband who would always fold under its stare. Pity the poor soul working customer service when actor Dana Harrison comes to call.
Daniel Joeck was never overshadowed in their shared scenes, though it was unclear just whose job it was to play the foil. He would briefly hold his own but then crumple under that withering stare. To save his ego and maintain his role as the head of the house, he rationalizes that he has “won” while soothing his shattered pride. Between the two of them, comedy has rarely been this delicious. Without the fine dialogue it would be Joan Rivers meets Louis Nye.
They have three daughters, two of whom squabble over the same suitor. Armande (Alexandra Lincoln) is the cold and clever one while Henriette (Kelly Galvin) the lovable and realistic sibling. The play opens with each defining their version of perfect love, Armande focusing on the spiritual and intellectual while Henriette follows her heart. The self-satisfied Armande is played coldly and with perfect aloofness by Lincoln while Galvin as Henriette pursues her own destiny with determination and diplomacy.
The object of their desire is Clitrandre (Enrico Spada in one of his best roles yet) who had once been in love with Armande, was rejected, and now has fallen for her sister, Henriette. Of course, once they become an item, the first sister decides to prevent their marriage from going forward.
Then there is the youngest sister, Bélise (a hilarious Jennnie M. Jadow) who almost stole the show. Hot to trot with the nearest man, she was a like a dog in heat, panting, almost salivating, and not listening to anyone or anything once she decided that “No” meant “Yes”. She would easily have stood out as the finest comedy actor in the company if the stage had not been filled with them.
Ryan Winkles amazed us once again with his portrayal of the effete Trissotin, a poet and writer not afraid of purloining others work to make his own reputation. His gift for comedy has always been impressive, and his fearless approach to this complex role was done with total naturalness. If he had any doubts about how to play it, they never showed. It was so spot on that I forgot it was Winkles, or Crumpet, or one of his dozen roles in Hound of the Baskervilles. As Trissotin, he portrayed someone I was meeting for the first time. Watching him, it was all about his character, not the actor. His character’s portrayal was so effective that we understood why Philaminte was convinced that he was the best catch possible for Henriette.
The older sister, Ariste (Stephanie Hedges) is the Deus ex machina of the second act, providing the mechanism by which all the conflicts resolve themselves. With her appearance, the dénouement as the play begins, bringing about a happy ending.
Though her role is modest, the maid Martine (Brittany Morgan) is the voice of reason here, speaking plain vernacular English, and each utterance she makes is like a breath of fresh air in the handsome French Provincial drawing room (set by Patrick Brennan) where the action takes place.
Supporting the cast are Jules Findlay as Lepine and the Notary, and Ehren Rernal as Vadius. Though minor, their roles are a key to unlocking the humor and keeping it moving forward.
In terms of production, it is first class all the way. As mentioned, The Learned Ladies has one of the best sets ever in that space, with solid lighting and an interesting, if peculiar, music track that was sometime hypnotic, sometimes a little distracting when it called attention to itself. Without any program notes to go by, I am not sure if there was an artistic raison d’être but it sounded sort of like random, somewhat abstract bass notes.
The solid wood back wall provided an excellent sounding board for the actors, all of which were easy to hear in a space where sound projection is sometimes a problem due to its slatted walls which gobble up sound instead of reflecting it.
The only jarring note are the two double doors which bounce rather than close, sometimes remaining ajar when they should be shut tight. They are of course essential to the creation of farce as the actors enter and exit mostly through them, often delivering their exit lines to applause. How nice it would be if those doors provided a solid slamming sound, as sort of a theatrical exclamation point.
The direction by Tina Packer and Jenna Ware was absolutely brilliant. Ware received a modest “assistant director” credit on the program, but Packer insists she was really a co-director. Credits aside, both have done themselves proud, and shown once again that theatre is as much about the visual delivery of the story as the words. But without the wit and wisdom of Richard Wilbur taking Molière’s 400 year old words and making them fresh again, and meaningful to a 21st Century audience, there would be no show at all.
Watching the pretentious foppery one can see why it was only a matter of time before the French revolution and all those finely coiffed heads would soon be rolling into baskets under the guillotine. Parallels can certainly be found today in those masquerading as moral even as they bleed the peasants dry. In the time that this play is set the French peasant paid with both labor and taxes while the privileged class dallied with daintiness and flirted with finery.
These nagging thoughts arrived after seeing the play, as did the uncomfortable feeling that Molière was mocking us from his grave for our demanding truth from our leaders even as we lie to each other every day on television, in the board room and yes, even across the back fence. So this is a play that can stay with you, and for all its laughter and merriment, has quite a few layers to goad and provoke you, should you care to explore them.
In Development of the Drama, Brander Mattews wrote that Molière “has been accused of not having a consistent, organic style, of using faulty grammar, of mixing his metaphors, and of using unnecessary words for the purpose of filling out his lines. All these things are occasionally true, but they are trifles in comparison to the wealth of character he portrayed, to his brilliancy of wit, and to the resourcefulness of his technique. He was wary of sensibility or pathos; but in place of pathos he had “melancholy — a puissant and searching melancholy, which strangely sustains his inexhaustible mirth and his triumphant gaiety”
The Learned Ladies is not as well known as Tartuffe or The Misanthrope, and yet its madcap pace and clever wordplay make it one of Molière’s masterpieces. Playing until March 25, 2012, it is as delicious in its irony, satire and mockery as anything you will see on stage this year. For all its pedigree and verbal gymnastics, The Learned Ladies reminds us that laughter is not only the best antidote to problems, but also a human trait that has been treasured through the ages. Laughter will never go out of style, nor will Molière.
Shakespeare & Company presents The Learned Ladies by Jean Baptiste Molière, translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur, Sets – Patrick Brennan, Costumes – Govane Lohbauer, Lights – Stephen Ball, Sound – Michael Pfeiffer, Stage Manager – Kate Johnson, Assistant Director – Jena Ware, Director – Tina Packer.
Cast: Alexandra Lincoln – Armande, Kelly Galvin – Henriette, Enrico Spada – Clitandre, Jennie M. Jadow – Bélise, Stephanie Hedges – Ariste, Daniel Joeck – Chrysale, Brittany Morgan – Martine, Dana Harrison – Philaminte, Jules Findlay – Lepine/Notary, Ryan Winkles – Trissotin, Ehren Remal – Vadius.
February 3- March 25, 2012, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA. Running time Two hours plus one 15 miute intermission. Box Office 413-637-3353. www.shakespeare.org