The Learned Ladies by Jean Baptiste Moliere, translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Tina Packer, with the assistance of Jenna Ware.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I simply can’t forgive the double negative!"
An argument concerning the duality of mankind’s presence, the physical versus the intellectual, is the glue that holds together a wonderful comedy by Moliere, "The Learned Ladies." An unhappy wife, intent on controlling her husband and all situations involving them and their family, forges a solid sisterhood of women bent on developing the mind and not the body in all relationships. Philaminte, the wife, has an ineffectual husband, two daughters, two sisters-in-law, one unfortunate maid, one disgruntled man-servant and two young men she must deal with, matching them up, as she feels she must, with the daughters of her choice. Philaminte is not the usual villainess, but she is convinced that her way, and in fact all ways, are her way. She is the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland; she is the beautiful, though deadly, queen in Snow White; she is the misguided soul of a million melodramas, real and theatrical. She is proof that unhappy can lead to hysterically funny.
In the new production of this play presented by Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, Philaminte is played by the talented Dana Harrison. Harrison is wonderful with characters who are just over the edge of campy. On opening night she was suffering from a cold that had effected changes in her usual voice leaving her with a deep-chest-tone gravel which, when used with a wonderfully odd accent gave her and her character a delectable Tallulah Bankhead baritone quality that seemed so right for this character, especially in light of the oddly soprano tones of actor Daniel Joeck playing her husband Chrysale. While the baritone register of Philaminte added to both her meanness and her sensuality, it also added a comic element that allowed her audience to know in advance the inevitable attitudinal alterations to come, allowing us to enjoy her. This is a performance that will be used as a measure for Harrison’s work in the future.
Her two daughters were played by the slightly sibilant Alexandra Lincoln as the intellectual Armande and Kelly Galvin as the pert heroine of the play, Henriette. Galvin was especially fetching and touching in her boisterous role as the younger, more feminine girl. She found her character easily, I am certain, for there is a naturalness in her performance that rang true in every moment of the play. Lincoln, with a harder role to play, worked harder at it and that was obvious as well.
As the man who has captured both sisters romantic notions, Clitandre, actor Enrico Spada had wonderful scenes and romantic moments, heady arguments and hilarious chase scenes to play. He made a handsome leading man. He very nearly convinced the world that he was equally sincere in loving each sister in turn for their own qualities, but it was difficult to buy concerning Armande, and that was not his fault. Lincoln’s early scenes were so harsh and dyspeptic that it was hard to believe that this handsome young man could have ever been in love with that character.
Daniel Joeck’s Chrysale, husband and father of the two girls, delivered a knock-about physical performance that was simply outstanding. In addition to those treble tones he had a hundred facial expressions, an equal number of physical positions and even a remarkable wig that must have been held in place by super-glue. Stephanie Hedges as his sensible older sister Ariste seemed and still seems several hours later, the only sane character in the play providing the thought that adoption must have been an essential part of being from the French upper-classes at one point. She was charming and warm and gave a delicate role its perfect sensibilities.
As his younger, crazier, sister Bélise the actress Jennie M. Jadow delivered the most wonderful manic performance imaginable. This character never hears what is being said, but only what she imagines must have been said. Mostly she hears that she is loved and desired, and not just for her intellect but for her body as well. Never have I seen an audience so dearly want to applaud an exit, every one of her exits, and yet feel the need to resist their own reactions. Dorothy Loudon, that superb clown who once took sixteen minutes to cross a small corridor on stage - perhaps seven feet of space - and only succeeded when the applause and laughter began to wane a bit, could not have been a more perfect actress for this role than Jadow proves to be. Her comic gifts are well displayed in this role.
The "other" suitor for Henriette, the poet Trissotin, is played with the fervor and humor of that necessary comic actor Ryan Winkles. If any actor in this company has emerged as a star in the past several seasons it is Winkles. From his makeup to his manipulation of his costume, his vibrantly exaggerated gestures to his vocal delivery of the most special lines the actor is so very completely in control of his character that it is hard to see the actor in the work. Winkles disappears into Trissotin and doesn’t emerge again until the curtain calls. An amalgam of Terry-Thomas, Danny Kaye, Parkyakarkus, Matthew Perry and John Ritter, this actor takes the unsympathetic, lecherous, bisexual, foppish court poet to new levels of sublime. Along with Harrison, Jadow and Spada he is worth the price of a ticket to this show.
Brittany Morgan does a lot with the role of Martine, the maid whose lecture in the second act is pure joy. Ehren Remal as Vadius adds a whole different set of essentials to the proceedings and Jules Findlay as two different characters has some wonderfully funny business to offer.
A lively and lovely production directed by Tina Packer and Jenna Ware makes even the sometimes too cute couplets of poet Richard Wilbur seem like gems. Patrick Brennan’s artful set and Stephen Ball’s sufficient lighting showcase and highlight the pretty costumes designed by Govane Lohbauer. Michael Pfeiffer’s movie sound cue design is incongruous, adds little in its intrusiveness and yet seems ultimately a part of the inevitably comic concept of the play.
This is a production which asks a lot of you, the audience. You have to move your head from side to side to see the whole play and not just the character who is speaking. You have to watch this remarkable company react to what is being said somewhere else on stage. They present a world of unity defined by involvement; the heart of their comedy is that interaction. If the Berkshire Eagle’s "best of" lists include best ensemble acting this company in this show should win the award hands-down.
It is winter but I suggest you get out of the house and boogie down the road to the Kemble Street home of Shakespeare and Company for a fast two hours of period comedy like no other. "The Learned Ladies" learn what it means to be ladies and so will you. And so will some of the men. And so will we all.
Jennie M. Jadow; photo: Kevin Sprague
Dana Harrison & Daniel Joeck; photo: Kevin Sprague
Ryan Winkles; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Learned Ladies plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the campus of Shakespeare and Company on Kemble Street in Lenox, MA through March 25. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.