The Learned Ladies
By C. SPENCER BEGGS
The Saint Mary's campus may have a wrinkle in time this weekend as the Saint Mary's Department of Communication, Dance and Theatre opens its spring 2002 show "The Learned Ladies."
The French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his penname Molière, finished "The Learned Ladies" in 1672 after working on the script for four years, which is notable because most of his plays were completed in a matter of months.
"The Learned Ladies" was Molière's penultimate play; he completed the farcical "La Malade Imaginaire" before his death a year later. "The Learned Ladies" is Molière's least performed play, although there has been resurgence in interest since Richard Wilbur's translation of the show began to be produced in 1982. Wilber's translation, which is used by Saint Mary's, rhymes in five-foot iambic pentameter as opposed to the original French that follows the 12-foot Alexandrian meter.
Most of Molière's work was done under the command of King Louis XIV. The king was a deep-pocketed patron of the arts and paid many artists for command performances before his court. It was the king's court that Molière often lampooned in his comedies. Although Louis XIV's sponsorship of Molière may seem philanthropic, his underlying motivation is much more self-serving. By creating an extremely class-conscious society, Louis XIV's nobility busied themselves trying to out-dress and outwit each other instead of plotting rebellions.
"The Learned Ladies" follows the farcical courtships in the house of a well-to-do 17th century French bourgeois Chrysale (played by Saint Mary's director of Special Events Richard Baxter). When Chyrsale's youngest daughter, Henriette (played by junior Maria Conticelli), sets her sights on marriage, she is chastised by her older sister, Armade (played by Saint Mary's freshman Nicole Hogarty), for pursuing base activities unlike herself and their philosophy-reading, self-proclaimed intellectual, shrew of a mother, Philamente (play by Saint Mary's junior Merideth Pierce).
But Henriette persuades her lover, Clitandre (played by Vini DeDario), to attempt to win the favor of the matriarchal Philamente by feigning interest in her and her entourage's intellectual pursuits and gaining the favor of Philamente's cronies. Unfortunately, Clitandre's plan fails when Chyrsale's megalomanical sister, Bélise (played by Saint Mary's junior Heather Muth), interprets his pleas for her support in his suit as a clandestine way of hitting on her.
Exasperated, Clitandre implores Chyrsale's brother, Ariste (played by Greg Melton), to take his suit directly to Chrysale himself. Chrysale approves of the match and vows to inform his domineering wife of his decision. But before he can get the words out of his mouth, Philamente informs him that she has chosen one of her "cultured" acquaintances to be Henriette's betrothed: the foppish Trissotin (played by Holy Cross sophomore Shane Lewis).
Faced with Philamente's proclamation, the lovers hatch new schemes to dispose of Trissotin and gain the family's consent in their marriage.
"The Learned Ladies" features some marvelous acting, especially from Baxter whose hysterical facial expressions and razor sharp timing lead to big laughs. Muth's over-the-top rendition of the spacey Bélise is certain to bring down the house too. Along with Lewis' gives-a-new-meaning-to-the-word "pompous" performance as Trissotin, the cast of "The Learned Ladies" will have the audience falling out of their seats. As an ensemble, the group's obvious dedication and hard work pays off.
The Saint Mary's production of the show also includes a framing play, which was written by the show's dramaturge Renée Kingcaid. The framing play is set at Saint Mary's where the production of "The Learned Ladies" is in full-swing. A student, Sarah (played by Saint Mary's junior Erin Schultz), struggling to learn her lines and trying to come to terms with the meaning of the show, is visited by the ghosts of Molière (played by Notre Dame fifth-year graduate student Troy Feay) and le Tartuffe (played by Notre Dame Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Louis MacKenzie), a character from one of Molière's most famous plays of the same name. Molière's phantasm acts as Sarah muse and helps her to understand why the play is not misogynistic even though it is making fun of educated women.
The framing piece over-agonizes the meaning of the play, attempting to explicitly justify the show's role at a women's college. This hyper-sensitivity to the slightest possibly of offending the College's character reflects the disturbing trend of tacit and self-imposed censorship in theatre on the Saint Mary's campus prevalent in the last few years. Campus theatre patrons have witnessed a decline from the blatant censorship of "The Vagina Monologues" to a tamed version of "The Keenan Revue" to a politically correct situating of Molière.
Molière's words speak for themselves. It is obvious that he was not ridiculing educated women, but rather pretension. The framing piece, in one sense, detracts from Molière's intent of making fun of the very people that were in his audience. Ironically, if one were offended on behalf of Saint Mary's by the lines Molière uses, he or she would, in fact, be pretentious and rightly ridiculed by the show. At times the framing piece comes close to insulting the audience's intelligence.
The framing piece is, however, well-written and Schultz, Feay and MacKenzie are entertaining in their roles. Although it adds time to the two hour and 15 minute show, the framing piece does elaborate on a few theatrical conventions and philosophic points that the audience would otherwise almost certainly miss. In the end, the framing piece is entertaining to watch with its anachronistic humor, but adds only a moderate amount to the overall show's meaning.
The Saint Mary's production of "The Learned Ladies" strives to recreate the setting in which the play was originally produced.
"We wanted to be as historically authentic as we could in the presentation in the show," Kingcaid said.
Doing so is a daunting task, but the crew pulls it off quite nicely. The elaborate costumes and make-up were researched thoroughly by Kingcaid. Further, because parts of the show are politically referential poetry in French, Kingcaid often had to go beyond simple meanings and find out to what Molière may have been subtly referring.
Kingcaid also researched what a 17th century French bourgeois salon looked like and the results are stunningly accurate. The stage looks like something out of a painting.
The director, Mark Abram-Copenhaver, knew from the beginning that the show would be challenging to produce from the acting standpoint as well.
"There are so many technical things that have to be dealt with: how to move in the corset, how to move even for the men who aren't corseted, how you carry your body. And then, once you mater the physical life of the characters, it's important for the actors to start to deal with the fact that the play is in rhyme. Every other line rhymes," Abram-Copenhaver said.
Abram-Copenhaver even brought in a motion coach, junior Adrienne DeGraffe, to teach the cast how to carry themselves in the proper 17th century French manner. The women were all required to wear corsets and petticoats from the beginning of the rehearsal process to give them an idea of what (and how uncomfortable) their costumes would be.
Kingcaid taught members of the cast some French so they could recite their lines or catch their cues; as a result, the ensemble has impeccable French accents.
"It's been difficult, but it's been a good experience because you learn so much," Conticelli said.
"The Learned Ladies" opens tomorrow night and runs through Saturday night at 8 p.m., there will be a matinee on both Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.. The show will be performed in the Stapleton Lounge in Le Mans Hall. General Admission is $8.50, $7.50 for senior citizens, $6.50 for Notre Dame and Saint Mary's community members and $5.50 for students. Tickets can be purchased from the Saint Mary's Box Office in the O'Laughlin Auditorium. To make reservations call the box office at (574) 284-4626.
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, March 20, 2002