note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
This review first appeared in The Wayland (MA) Town Crier
Moliere's "The Learned Ladies," now playing at Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre, is a summertime delight. The handsome set, lavish costumes and wildly extravagant wigs transport playgoers to the Paris of 1672 without taking the spotlight off the main event -- namely, the hilarious characterizations. And thanks to the exceptional naturalness of the translation by former poet laureate Richard Wilbur, the audience is well into the first scene before realizing that the lines actually rhyme. In an opening teaser, period music tinkles cheerily around a napping servant while eccentric-looking characters glide through the drawing room in elaborate gowns, long waistcoats, ruffled cuffs and buckled shoes, making faces and whispering.
Director and set designer John Barrett, who (under his stage name James Ewell Brown) also portrays the henpecked Chrysale, has elicited from his talented group some of the goofiest looks and body moves imaginable. The ensemble seems to be engaged in a conspiracy of fun into which it welcomes the audience with open arms.
To be sure, the skewering of women who would rather develop their minds than raise children and keep house requires us to shelve some contemporary values for a couple hours. But the learned ladies of the title are only playing at intellectual pursuits. And their mentor, the deliciously odious Trissotin (Dan Kelly), is really after the wealth of Chrysale's daughter Henriette, a girl with traditional ambitions and a fine sense of the ridiculous (the lovely Kimberly Schaeffer). Dan Kelly's wonderfully slithering walk, torturous smirks and pompous speech reveal Trissotin as a fraud to anyone with eyes to see.
Unfortunately, Henriette's domineering mother, Philaminte (Deanna S. Swan), does not have such eyes. Determined to impose her enthusiasm for grammar, Greek literature and astronomy on everyone in her household, she is easy prey to the poseur, believing him a brilliant poet. With her other daughter and her sister-in-law, learned ladies all, she swoons over trivial lines of verse by Trissotin like "say what they may"; she is awed when he rhymes "vermilion" with "her million."
Philaminte's other daughter is the conflicted Armande, performed to perfection by Melissa Sine. Armande has spurned former suitor Clitandre (a charming rendition by Evan Bernstein), swearing off human love for the greater joys of philosophy. In reality, however, she is seething with jealousy because Clitandre and Henriette are now in love.
Clitandre, handicapped by his small fortune, sets about the task of getting permission from Henriette's parents to wed. Clitandre turns to Philaminte's sister-in-law, Belise, for help and advice, but the ageing Belise imagines all men in love with her and flirts with him outrageously. Mikki Lipsey outdoes herself in this role, one of her best. Every word is clearly enunciated and every glance is raucous. In Belise's impenetrable self-love, she is a more likable version of Trissotin.
Meanwhile Ariste (Robert Mackie), who unlike his brother Chrysale is not cowed by Philaminte, tries to breathe courage into the master of the house, ably assisted by a down-to-earth kitchen maid (Kate Mahoney as Martine). Andy Moore joins the fray as Vadius, a pedantic friend of Trissotin who turns against the fake, and David Dobson does double duty as a servant and the notary brought in to write up Henriette's marriage papers. Faced with both Trissotin and Clitandre as suitors to Henriette, he exclaims, "Two grooms? The law regards that as excessive!"
Barrett's set features an antechamber with a portrait of Philaminte in a Greek toga by Michael Willhoite. The drawing room, though it boasts an alcove full of books and scientific artifacts, is also elegant with salmon wallpaper in molded panels, painted sunbursts over the doors and many signs of comfort. Clearly, whether or not Philaminte really loves book learning above wealth, as she claims, the timid Chrysale has provided her with a life in the lap of luxury.
The show was produced by Michael Hirsh and Grant Wood. Elizabeth Tustian designed the sumptuous costumes of brocade and lace. Daniel Clawson did the lighting, and Jack Wickwire came up with an amazing array of wigs that have to be seen to be believed. "The Learned Ladies" runs through Aug. 6. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.