Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Learned Ladies"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Moličre
translated by Richard Wilbur
directed and set design by John Barrett

Armande, daughter to Chrysale & Philaminte … Melissa Sine
Henriette, daughter to Chrysale & Philaminte … Kimberly Schaeffer
Clitandre, Henriette’s suitor … Evan Bernstein
Belise, sister to Ariste & Chrysale …Mikki Lipsey
Ariste, brother to Chrysale … Robert Mackie
Chrysale, a rich bourgeois … James Ewell Brown
Martine, a kitchen maid … Kate Mahoney
Philaminte, wife to Chrysale … Deanna S. Swan
Lepine, a servant … David Dobson
Trissotin, a poet of sorts … Dan Kelly
Vadius, a pedant … Andy Moore
A Notary … David Dobson

Everyone knows Moličre’s TARTUFFE and THE MISANTHROPE but if you wish to see a delightful production of THE LEARNED LADIES you’ll find it playing at the Vokes Theatre for a few weekends more. Even in his lesser-known romps Moličre is the founder of modern-day comedy and many an American sitcom would do well to look upon this 17th century Frenchman as its true sire, several centuries removed. Moličre himself could point to his own inspirations --- the plot conventions and stock characters of old Roman comedy and the freewheeling spirit of the Italian commedia dell’ arte --- but he sharpened his wit upon the court-society of his day (not surprisingly, he often found himself in hot water for his accurate jabs). THE LEARNED LADIES runs parallel to TARTUFFE --- a hypocrite has wormed his way into the good graces of a household and must be exposed before he marries the younger daughter against her will --- in this case the villain is the fraudulent poet Trissotin hailed as a genius by Philaminte, Belise and Armande, the mistress, old-maid aunt and elder daughter of Chrysale’s household; they are three Learned Ladies whose education has hardened into yet another form of snobbery (hearing bad grammar sends them into convulsions). Henriette, Trissotin’s un-Learned intended, loves Clitandre who once wooed and was rejected by Armande; the young lovers receive Chrysale’s blessing but can the timid master of the house stand up to his dominatrix wife and allow True Love to triumph? Some may take issue over hearing that a woman’s place is in the home rather than in the halls of higher learning but Moličre covers his derriere somewhat by having Trissotin leading his Ladies astray as much as the religious hypocrite Tartuffe turns Orgon against his own family and if Philaminte can be viewed as a pre-feminist, she is also hell-bent on destroying Henriette’s future happiness. Moličre mirrored the world he knew; he still gets hearty laughs for his pains and makes enough contemporary-sounding points --- whether he rises or falls in your opinion is, of course, up to you.

The Vokes production, done in period, captures much of the fun and sparkle in Richard Wilbur’s still-wonderful translation which turns the original French into nimble-sounding English. Director John Barrett has done his homework and keeps everything heightened and artificial so that his actors become amusing puppets within his dollhouse set, greatly assisted by the Vokes’ own period ambiance, and he keeps them statue-still for long stretches of time, allowing the comedy to tumble out in the lines and the personalities rather than in fussy stage-business that would only retard the flow. The performance begins cautiously as if the actors are dipping their toes into a hot bath but once they are in they bounce Mr. Wilbur’s couplets off each other in joyous give-and-take. (A company member told me afterwards that performing in verse sounds easy but is not: you may have the “end” words for anchors but the tricky part is remembering everything that leads up to them --- add to that always being aurally dependent upon your co-players for the correct rhythms, especially if a line is divided amongst yourselves, and one can only smile in amazement over Mr. Barrett and his actors’ achievement: they make THE LEARNED LADIES look like child’s play.) Dan Kelly plays Trissotin akin to his Brother Martin in last year’s INCORRUPTIBLE, i.e. sneaky and leering, but his expressions and timing are so good that he walks off with the evening in his fey grip though Mikki Lipsey, with her hippo-like daintiness, nearly steals it back as the love-addled Belise. James Ewell Brown and Deanna S. Swan are nicely balanced as Chrysale and Philaminte with Mr. Brown’s hyper little clown ever clashing with Ms. Swan’s aristocratic stooge who wears a fright wig that must be seen to be believed. As Armande, Melissa Sine unwraps a brand-new declaiming voice and, like a child with a bell, rings it merrily, throughout. I rejoiced along with Ms. Sine, remembering how remote she had been in THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE only two years ago; since then, she has evolved into one of the Boston area’s impressive younger actresses with her looks, her presence and, now, her voice. In time may Ms. Sine temper the latter so that she will sweetly chime in the classics as well as sound the hour for her next arrival.

"The Learned Ladies" (21 July - 6 August)
Route 20, WAYLAND, MA
1 (508) 358-4034

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide