May 2, 2011

Modern Moliére Misfires

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What do metal cages, pole dancing, bright neon lights, Ella Fitzgerald, ponzi schemes, Andy Warhol’s factory and 17th century French theatre have in common? Quite a bit, apparently, according to the Schwartz Center’s experimental production of Moliére’s Learned Ladies. Those looking for a faithful adaptation of the French classic will probably be disappointed, but lovers of contemporary theatre might be pleasantly surprised by this 300-year-old comedy.

The famous Moliére play follows a straightforward plot. As the title suggests, The Learned Ladies explore the relationship between traditional feminine roles and intellectual learning. Two young lovers, Henriette (Erin Wagner ’11) and Clitandre (Alejandro Ruiz ’12) are attempting to overcome the attitude of Henriette’s family in order to be married. Her sensible father  (David Studwell) and her hysterical uncle (Michael Doliner ’13) approve the union, while her mother (Sarah K. Chalmers), aunt (Anya Gibian ’12) and sister (Sharisse Taylor ’11) — three “learned” ladies — wish her to marry Tissotin (Michael Kaplan), a doggerel poet who is approximately three times Henriette’s age and dresses like Gru from Despicable Me. The play takes place between the salon, a gathering of intellectuals in a private home that was popular during 17th and 18th century France, and Henrietta’s home, a private environment where the power relation of her mother and father is comically reversed.

The most confronting and striking element of the play is the set design. A 30 foot tall metal cage is erected on stage, and 20 or so audience members are invited to sit on stage along the side of the cage. As the play begins, blue and fuschia lights that seem to recreate the ambience of a Las Vegas strip club flash across the stage and the actors prance about on and around the metal poles like Looney Tunes characters, reading and laughing (sometimes maniacally) to themselves. Height is a literally manipulated motif in this satire about “higher learning” as actors climb up and down the cage, bubbling with delirious passion about “the great art of philosophy.”

According to the program notes, this is intended to replicate Andy Warhol’s Factory in Midtown Manhattan. The comparison between 17th century Salons and Warhol’s Factory is a marvelous touch, inviting the audience to interrogate the meaning and value of art. The cage’s function as a symbol for the rigid mindset and social constraints of the characters is well elucidated. Just about everybody (even Bélise, the self-deluded aunt dressed in heels and a dress with a train almost as long as Kate Middleton’s wedding gown) attempts some form of acrobatics on these metal monkey bars. It’s delightfully ambiguous whether they are romancing with their limitations or attempting to break free. The bare skeleton of Warhol’s Factory is also incredibly malleable; with some help from lighting and background music, it transforms into an animal cage in violent pandemonium-like scenes and adds the innocence of a children’s playground in Henrietta and Clitandre’s rare moments of tenderness.

Moliére’s presence becomes somewhat lost in translation amidst a whirlwind of assorted modern updates that attempt to spruce up the play, such as references to Marilyn Manson, Merrill Lynch and an a capella performance of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” One of the most famous playwrights in the history of Western literature, Moliére’s mastery of words was so influential that the French language is oftentimes referred to as “la langue de Moliére.” 17th century French plays are known for their focus on dialogue rather than action, but there was almost too much going on in this production of the Learned Ladies. Instead of a standard Richard Wilbur translation, the David Coward one chosen here allows a lot more room for improvisation and seems to aim to accommodate modern language rather than preserve the words of Moliére. In addition to the unconventional translation, pop culture references, mostly modern costumes (Clitandre wears a track suit) and a cage in the middle of the stage, the play is also constantly interrupted by impromptu slam poetry performances. Many of them are gimmicky, repetitive and slightly irritating, but a few gems are brilliant and hilarious.

Original Author: Lucy Li