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Theater review: Molière’s ‘Learned Ladies’ plays under the moon in Morris Twp

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July 12 performance of “The Learned Ladies” by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

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Saturday evening, July 12, Molière’s “The Learned Ladies” played to a moderately-sold audience on The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Outdoor Stage, on the grounds of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morris Township. Before sunset, the dramatic clouds appeared to be painted in their places as part of scenic designer Charlie Calvert’s handsome unit set, the curved walls of which displayed someone’s—ostensibly Molière’s—handwriting in French script. The balmy evening was perfect for the performance.

“The Learned Ladies” is poet Richard Wilbur’s translation of the French original, “Les femmes savantes,” a five-act satirical farce that Molière wrote in rhyming verse in 1672. It concerns hyperactive goings-on in the household of headstrong Philaminte and her henpecked husband, Chrysale, their two couldn’t-be-less-alike daughters, Armande and Henriette, and Chrysale’s siblings—brother Ariste and sister Bélise. The title ladies are Philaminte, Armande and Bélise, standouts from all other characters onstage for their high-flying ideals about education in general and learning for women in particular.

Central to these goings-on is a confrontation between two pedantic poets, Trissotin and Vadius, who represented identifiable living poets in Molière’s time. The chief conflict in the action occurs when Philaminte dismisses her servant Martine over her—horror of all horrors!—poor grammar. Family tensions run highest, though, over Henriette’s desire to marry the youthful Clitandre, a union that the girl’s father fully supports, much to the displeasure of the snobbish women who are against marriage on principle, unless Henriette were to marry the old fogey poet Trissotin for the improvement of her mind.

As Philaminte, actress, singer and lyricist Marion Adler imperiously commanded the stage in every scene in which her character appeared. She exploited her plummy lower register to express frequent outrage without huskiness. Her sister-in-law Bélise (Alison Weller) and savante wannabe daughter Armande (Susan Maris) were of the same mind, and the three women swooned and mugged hilariously as the occasion demanded.

Rachael Fox, dressed in baby-blue satin under flocked lace, played the down-to-earth Henriette, the “normal” daughter. Her delivery of the rhyming couplets sounded more like natural speech than did that of Maurice Jones (debut) as her ardent suitor, Clitandre. This was no small accomplishment as she also had the largest proportion of rhymes that sounded like a stretch and tended toward the cloying, to the point of nearly being annoying. Reading Richard Wilbur’s brilliant translation makes one more conscious of the precious rhyming scheme than did the expert delivery of all the actors in this solid cast.

Clark Scott Carmichael embodied the foppish Trissotin, the poet the audience loved to hate. (Think Sir Percy Blakeney in the 1982 “Scarlet Pimpernel,” minus all the charm and most of the swashbuckling.)

John Hickok inhabited two roles, portraying Chrysale and the visiting scholar Vadius, the one a man lacking backbone, the other an effete poet. The evening’s most humorous moments were those that had Chrysale mustering courage to face-off with the domineering Philaminte, only to melt in the moment, needful of inflating again and again by his brother, daughter and Clitandre. Lindsay Smiling deftly portrayed Henriette’s uncle Ariste as a straight foil to Chrysale’s wilting hysteria.

In her small but significant role, Christine Sanders played Martine—the discharged servant reemployed by a working-up-his-nerve Chrysale—with ample attitude. Her impeccable timing gave the audience enough time to laugh at some of the funniest lines of the evening.

And laughs came in abundant supply throughout the performance, which seemed all too brief, clocking just one hour and 50 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission). Director Brian B. Crowe deserves credit for keeping this comedy alive, constantly moving, with no chance of inertia. Comedy is the most difficult form of theater to stage convincingly, and his direction kept everyone believing in the preposterous dilemmas the learned women got themselves into repeatedly.

Costume Designer Paul Canada’s sumptuously rich garb was nearly a character unto itself. Over the learned ladies’ hoop skirts draped coats of varying lengths, according to age and rank, deploying Greek characters and text. The family, poets, and Clitandre all sported glistening silks, brocaded satin and flocked velvet. The trio of learned women and the poets they initially admired wore ridiculously outsize wigs, whereas Chrysale, his brother Ariste, Henriette and Clitandre were wigged in more regular fashion for the seventeenth century.

Competing with the stage lighting, stars after sunset struggled to be seen from the Greek amphitheater. But in Act II a full moon prominently played the protagonist from its lofty position.

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