Sunday, June 29, 2014


By Ruth Ross

They were the "it" girls of 17th century France, upper-class women, enamored of the new zeal for Reason, who held regular salons attended by learned men who talked about literature, science and philosophy. Despite having scant education themselves, these women fancied themselves learned ladies, attaining knowledge just by hobnobbing with the intellectual elite of the age. And, they had big hair.

STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_7844Of course, their self-important pomposity was ripe for deflation, and no one did it better than Molière, as in his effervescent and mordant comedy, The Learned Ladies, the summer production of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, currently glowing with wit and humor at the Greek Amphitheater on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. With sharpened quill, France's greatest comedic writer takes aim at academic fools and those who indiscriminately worship them. Oh, and did I mention that they had really big hair?

The plot involves a marriage between young aristocrat Henriette and her penniless suitor Clitandre, a match condoned by the bride-to-be's father Chrysale but violently opposed by her battle-axe of a mother Philaminte, who thinks the foolish philosopher Trissotin is a better match for her younger daughter. Abetting Philaminte in getting her own way are older daughter Armande and sister-in-law Bélise, both "learned ladies" (with big hair) who look down their noses people like Henriette, whom they consider to be stupid and materialistic, especially because she wants to become a wife and mother. (Above, l-r: The “learned ladies” [Alison Weller, Marion Adler, Susan Maris] voice their high-brow disapproval of poor grammar.)

STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_7911Director and sound designer Brian Crowe's choice of sprightly harpsichord music sets the tone from the very outset, as servants cavort around, performing their chores while reading books! The energy level thus established, Crowe keeps translator Richard Wilbur's snappy rhymed verse dialogue flowing nonstop, as when big-haired Philaminte pontificates on the need for good grammar and Trissotin reads his sonnet with (unintended) comic expression and often misplaced emphasis as the listening women, so moved by inanities, faint with pleasure. (Left, The pseudo-scholarly poet Trissotin [Clark Scott Carmichael] performs an impassioned original composition as an amazed Armande [Susan Maris] watches.)

Dressed in wonderfully evocative and silly-looking costumes designed by Paul Canada, the talented cast confronts Molière's satire head on, slinging his barbs against those who worship wit, the prominence of mind over body, but know nothing of what's happening in the real world. And these learned ladies and gentlemen certainly do have big hair. Philaminte and her posse wear huge white wigs that look like lambs on their heads, with a magnifying glass, book, globe, and a quill pen and scroll perched precariously on the tops. Their gold and white attire is decorated with words, math equations and geometry symbols to ram home that these wackos eat, sleep and drink knowledge, yet remain supremely uneducated!

STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_7677Everyone turns in a first-rate performance, from Marion Adler as the harridan Philaminte, who plans to banish all verbs and nouns the ladies do not like and who terrorizes her milquetoast husband Chrysale (deliciously played by John Hickock  as a bowl of quivering jelly whenever she appears) to the unable to be intimidated Henriette, played charmingly with a steel backbone by Rachael Fox. As the older sister Armande, Susan Maris has great fun inveighing against marriage (which she calls "slavery") but who continues to pursue Clitandre even after she has dumped him. Allison Weller's ample Bélise sails around the stage like a frigate as she, too, pursues Clitandre, despite his rejection of her. Of course, these two women are supremely deluded hypocrites, and Molière revels in taking them down a notch or two! And John Hickock does double duty as Vadius, dressed in all-black (his wig looks like a helmet) as the savant who expounds in Greek, saying, of course, nothing that sounds reasonable. (Above: The imperious matriarch Philaminte [Marion Adler] silences her husband Chrysale [John Hickok])

STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_8001Clark Scott Carmichael has a field day as the Greek scholar Trissotin, performing lots of physical comedy with aplomb, looking quite serious as he spouts idiocies, poses with his leg extended (called "making a good leg") and avidly pursues Henriette, who clearly does not welcome his attentions. Lindsay Smiling turns the small part of Ariste, brother to Chrysale and Bélise, into an important source of equanimity in the face of disaster, as does Christine Sanders as the wise maid Martine, dismissed because of her poor grammar by Philaminte in the beginning of the play, only to return to utter truths about human nature, even if she does so in an inartful way! (Left: The aspiring poet Trissotin (Above: Trissotin [Clark Scott Carmichael] wows Philaminte [Marion Adler] with his cultured “learning.”)

The set, designed by Charlie Calvert, glows in the descending darkness, with curving walls imprinted with words and a white marble floor furnished simply with four chairs and piles of books (some of which protrude from under the stage to form steps so the actors can exit gracefully). Hamilton E.S. Smith's lighting completes the jewel box effect.

As Clitandre says, there is "no fool like a learned fool," and with The Learned Ladies, Molière and the folks at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey provide dramatic proof of that axiom. Of course, it's all performed with style, elegance, precise comedic timing, and the ability to recite verse without it sounding sing-song-y yet amusingly charming. And many of Richard Wilbur's clever rhymes will make you laugh out loud with their wit!

So grab a low-backed chair or cushion, a picnic dinner or snacks, grandma and the older kids, and head over to Convent Station for a rollicking 95 minutes in the company of The Learned Ladies. You will be glad you did!

The Learned Ladies will be performed at the outdoor Greek Amphitheatre on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth , 2 Convent Road (entrances off Park Avenue and Madison Avenue/Rte. 124), Convent Station, through July 27. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Sundays at 7:30 PM and special twilight performances Saturday at 4:30 PM. Tickets are $15-$35 for adults; children under 5 go free (although I do not think they will enjoy the play's witticisms). For information or to purchase tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online.

Photos © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.