Molière’s “The Learned Ladies” makes the transition from 17th century France to America in the 1930s with its sharp wit intact in the production that the Centenary Stage Company is now presenting at the Sitnik Theatre in Hackettstown. Using an translation/adaptation by Freyda Thomas, director Carl Wallnau and a talented 15-actor cast create a blend of sophistication and silliness that makes for a highly entertaining evening.
My only criticism, really, is that the actors sometimes talked too fast. Molière packed his dialogue with humor, and it was hard, at times, to catch everything as it all whizzed by.
The plot centers around the potential marriage of Henriette (Lizzie Engelberth). She has her heart set on Lycandre (Chris Young), and wants to live a simple, ordinary married life with him. That’s fine with her easy-going father, Chrysale (David Cantor). But her intellectually pretentious, iron-willed mother Philamente (Sandy York) is set on Henriette marrying Trissotin (David Edwards), a poet and (we quickly realize) charlatan who is really only interested in living off the family’s money.
Henriette’s sister Armande (Nadia Denise Brown) is also enthralled by Trissotin’s questionable genius, and doesn’t see why Henriette doesn’t want to stay a pure intellectual, like her. “Oh Henriette, it’s truly rapturous/To study differential calculus!” she proclaims. (Thomas has translated Molière’s French verse into English verse).
Still, Armande’s repressed sexuality eventually shows itself. Meanwhile, Henriette’s aunt Belise (Amy Griffin) is also, to a lesser extent, a proponent of intellectualism, though she, childishly, believes that every man in the world is in love with her.
Another one of Henriette’s aunt, Arista (Lea Antolini-Lid), stays more on the fringes of the action, but in the play’s climactic scene, swoops in and saves the day, on the way to the expected happy ending. Martine (Isabel Cade), a servant, provides some of the evening’s biggest laughs with her awkward attempts to help Chrysale help Henriette. Other servants (Connor Goerk, AJ Lewis, Brianna Morris, Megan Schmiedhauser) aren’t onstage much but help add to the fun by comically dancing and flirting in dialogue-free interludes.
A larger question arises from “The Learned Ladies.” Is Molière being critical of or condescending to women in general? In other words, is he implying — like many a man of his time (1622-1673) surely would — that it’s foolish for a woman to pursue intellectual learning?
Perhaps. But the men in this play are foolish, too, in various ways, and the most horrifically misguided of all the intellectual characters is unquestionably Trissotin. So I’m willing to give Molière a pass on that. And this is something I only thought about after the play was over, anyway; I was too busy laughing while it was actually taking place, to do so then.
“The Learned Ladies” will be at the Sitnik Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through Oct. 22; visit centenarystageco.org.