`Learned Ladies' survives modern adaptation nicely

Colonial Players offer feisty, funny production of 17th-century satire

Arundel Live

November 04, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Adaptations are never easy to bring off.

And adaptations of classic theater by the likes of Aristophanes, Sophocles and Moliere are darned near impossible.

How do you capture enough period nuances to do honor to the original while switching venues, modifying characters and bringing the declamatory poetic style of yesteryear alive for contemporary audiences?

The folks at Colonial Players know how, because they have just opened a production of Moliere's hilarious 17th-century comedy, "The Learned Ladies," that's almost as feisty and fizzy as it must have been when France's greatest comic playwright had them rolling in the aisles at Versailles during the august reign of his benefactor, King Louis XIV.

I doubt that the Sun King's retinue would have comprehended the hillbilly accents of the Nashville social climbers who provide the grist for Moliere's satirical mill in this adaptation by Freyda Thomas. But certainly they would have recognized the masks, comic affected postures and circular processions that director Thomas Quimby has added to "authenticate" the show. And they'd have nodded sagaciously at Moliere's eternal message: Our pretentions can and do get the better of us sometimes.

How?

A nouveau riche family, it seems, has taken in a "man of letters" whose pretentiously silly poetry has kindled the aesthetic and erotic fantasies of its women: the imperious mother, Philamente; her comely eldest daughter, Armande, who's on the rebound from her fling with young Clitandre; and naughty Auntie Belise who may be found a tad too close to the nearest male poet when not off studying Buddhist philosophy.

When mama decides that her youngest daughter, Henriette, should marry Trissotin, the shifty poet, instead of good ol' boy Clitandre -- whom the girl fancies -- merry high jinks ensue, and great lessons of love and life are learned.

Wonderful performances dot the minimalist set, especially from the women.

Mandy Dalton provoked gales of laughter at Friday's opening with her maniacally charged portrayal of lusty Aunt Belise.

Mary Fawcett Watko puts her regal manner and Anglicized Eartha Kitt voice to excellent use as the pseudo-intellectual Philamente, while Julie Fox and Debbie Cooke exude charm and beauty as the very different sisters doing their best to make their way through the maze of young love.

Making it a clean sweep for the women is Katherine Alspaw Smith, who is hilarious as Martine, the servant girl who commandeers the funniest game of charades ever seen on the Players' stage.

Chrysale, the put-upon husband and father, is played delightfully by Frank Moorman who manages to be sleazy, fearful, devious, predatory and wimpy all at the same time.

Also first-rate are Brian Blanchard as Uncle Ariste, the one pocket of mature sanity on stage, Daniel Hackler-Sullivan as a hilarious judge, and Michael Smith, who as the much-abused servant, Lepine, steals more than one scene from this cast so full of accomplished larcenists.

Two problems exist -- one small, one large. Boyfriend Clitandre's lines do not come across well because Pat Reynolds overdoes the southern accent. Less would definitely be more.

And both actor and director are missing a golden opportunity with Chilton Isaac's portrayal of the literary charlatan. Trissotin is a vintage Moliere twit who is supposed to be pompous, foppish and funny. Here, he's just another southern accent who adds no comic energy at all. When the letter exposing him is read, it might as well be a recipe for fried chicken for all the reaction it inspires.

Please rethink this role on the fly, Colonial. Instead of delectable, state-of-the-art French pastry, you've given us a yummy doughnut; a fun, fluffy, flavorful cake with a hole in its middle.

Information: 410-268-7373.

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