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Review: `The Learned Ladies’
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on March 31, 1999. All rights reserved.
We will never know what bright and clever touches director
Andre Ernotte would have embellished Moliere’s "The Learned Ladies"
(a.k.a. "Les Femmes Savantes") with, as he died of liver disease
before rehearsals began. One can only wonder whether Ernotte was attracted
to the play that many consider Moliere’s final masterpiece (written
just prior to "The Imaginary Invalid"), because Moliere wrote
it even as he was losing a battle with tuberculosis near the end of
Considering Moliere’s failing health, "The Learned Ladies"
is a happy lark of a play, an almost giddy satire. It appears as if
Daniel Fish, who took over the direction of the production that Ernotte
had conceived, may not have had enough time to bring some of his own
fresh and audacious touches to (yet another of) Moliere’s genteel
attacks on the narrow-minded and the phony.
Anyone who saw Fish’s lively staging of Shakespeare’s "The Merry
Wives of Windsor" at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (set
in a contemporary prank-filled Borscht-belt hotel) could assume that
he would not be handicapped by awe for a classic. Even with the advantage
of Richard Wilbur’s admired and generally sparkling translation, Fish’s
staging presses toward an overly studied gravity. And the farceurs
entrusted to the work appear to be caught in a space neither freshly
stylized nor aptly Frenchified. Caught somewhere between a traditionalist’s
values and a modernist’s insecurities, this play of manners is denied
the outrageous excesses and exuberant flourishes it can deliver.
Although "The Learned Ladies" remains no less than the typically
amusing lesson in common sense that we expect and no more than the
gentle skewering of pretensions we may still admire, it would appear
to need more definitively shaped performances than, for the most part,
we get here.
And while designer Neil Patel’s barren evocation of a 17th-century
Paris home may make a statement regarding Moliere’s plan to lay waste
to synthetic facades, I can find no reason for Jess Goldstein’s parade
of drab costumes (save for the ingenue’s pink and peach gown), except
perhaps to make a fashion statement regarding Moliere’s exposing of
Whatever pretensions we are exposed to, they are not as important
as the delight we should take in the polite blue-stockings whom we
observe swooning over classical Greek literature, science, art, and
poetry, and, in one case, men on the moon, rather than sex and marriage
proposals. Empowered by two hours of rhymed couplets, "The Learned
Ladies" are embroiled in the follies of irrational behavior.
Whether "The Learned Ladies" stacks up against Moliere’s more
familiar and more robust comedies like "The Misanthrope" and
"Tartuffe" is less important that how we respond to Fish’s
rather stolid and perfunctory staging, and to a mildly incendiary
line in the play, such as "I like a woman who keeps her studies
secret," as expressed by Clitandre, Henriette’s ardent suitor.
Forgiving the play’s potential to irk some of our more humorless and
rigid post-17th-century feminists with its theme "learning can
make great fools," the title characters are all seen as utterly
foolish purveyors of highfalutin talk.
The machinations of matchmaking get the play going when Philaminte,
the wife of the easy-going (read hen-pecked) Chrysale, selects Trissotin,
an indisputably worthless (read repulsive) poet, her personal mentor,
as the most likely husband for her daughter Henriette. Henriette is,
wouldn’t you know it, in love with Clitandre, a nice young man who
had previously wooed Armande, her now jealous but "learned"
elder sister. Into the mix comes the sisters’ Aunt Belise, a woman
whose lofty intellectual pursuits will not be compromised by her deluded
notion that every man she knows has the hots for her.
Of the more impressive turns, I rather enjoyed Jack Davidson, as Chrysale,
whose meekness is charged by his ever growing sparks of exasperation
("Is thinking all this household thinks about?"). Laurie Kennedy
gets the evenings biggest laughs as the spyglass-wielding aunt who
believes every man "worships me inwardly." Laurie Williams
elicits our sympathy as Armande, the older sister who is, for all
intents and purposes, married to philosophy. Judith Hawkins has her
comic moments as Philaminte, the shrewish wife "charmed by pedantry."
Kate Forbes, as Henriette, is no more and no less charming and demure
than the role demands. Mark Niebuhr was impressively straight and
unaffected as Clitandre, Henriette’s suitor who steadfastly backs
up his early declaration, "I have a body and a spirit."
In a staging that aspires to downplay comical fakery and play up conventional
reality, a bespectacled Andrew Weems, as the opportunistic poet Trissotin,
straddles the two and unfortunately gets nowhere. "Domestic servants,
it’s a losing game," frets the convincing Susan Pellegrino, as
the frazzled Martine, the kitchen maid who has been fired because
she cannot learn the rules of proper speech, and who, when she is
rehired at the end of the play, defends a woman’s right to be unlearned
if she chooses. Smile or not at "The Learned Ladies," there
are lessons to be learned.
— Simon Saltzman
Place, 609-683-8000. Conceived by Andre Ernotte and directed by Daniel
Fish, the play runs through April 11. $25 to $36; $10 for ages under
Simon’s version: "The Learned Ladies" (through April 11) McCarter
Theatre, 91 University Place For tickets ($32 – $36) call 683 – 8000
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