Everything about the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts’ production of Molière’s The Learned Ladies is big, bright, and savagely funny. A master of the form, comic dramatist Molière’s scathing satire of pompous academics and pretentious learning finds a home in the most appropriate of places, a university. And here, inside the University Theatre, the laughs are plentiful, and the social commentary as sharp as a fine blade.
Directed by Inouk Touzin, The Learned Ladies tells the story of Henriette (Natasha Strickey), a young woman whose ‘learned’ family makes her life unbearable. Henriette’s sister Armande (Vanessa Wenzel) is obsessed with cultivating her mind through books and philosophy. Armande becomes furious at her sister when Henriette tells her she plans to marry Citandre (Andy Weir), or give into base desires as Armanda sees it. Henriette’s overbearing mother Philaminte (Onika Henry) disapproves of the marriage, preferring instead that her youngest daughter marry Trissotin (Connor Pritchard), a haughty scholar and poet revered by Philaminte and her sister-in-law Bèlise (Vanessa Jetté).
Henriette’s father Chrysale (Logan Teske) and his brother Ariste (Dylan Forkheim) are her and Citandre’s only allies in the household. Unfortunately for the young lovers, Chrysale is more mouse than man, especially when it comes to dealing with his wife Philaminte.
Molière’s disdain for so-called intellectuals brings to mind Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall. In the film, Allen’s character Alvy Singer retreats away from a stuffy cocktail party to watch the Knicks on TV, telling his wife later: “it’s one thing about intellectuals, they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant, but have no idea what’s going on.” Molière’s intellectuals in The Learned Ladies are exactly that, brilliant but unable to see what is right under their nose. Bèlise – who ironically wears a telescope on her head – thinks that Citandre telling her that he is in love with Henriette is some sort of ruse to hide his true feelings for her, despite him repeatedly telling the desperate woman otherwise. Armande is unable to understand why Citandre stopped courting her and then fell in love with her down-to-earth sister Henriette. Armande fails to see the incompatibility between herself and Citandre, displaying a lack of emotional intelligence on her part.
Touzin stages a fun BDSM affair between Chrysale and Martine (Pryscil Daigle), a house servant. Philaminte charges into the garden, angry that Martine is still around after committing such a severe crime – a crime worse than theft. The crime? Bad grammar. Here, Teske’s Chrysale shows great relief that Philaminte doesn’t know about the scandal right in front of her, and also frustration (sexual and otherwise) that such a capable servant is being dismissed for illegitimate reasons.
April Viczko’s gorgeous set and costume design, an explosion of colour “designed in punk-rococo style,” reflects Molière’s cautious attitude towards the pursuit of knowledge. Not all learning is bad, Molière argues, but not all teachers are right. On the outside, the pursuit of knowledge is a glossy, wonderful thing – which is why so many young people are encouraged to attend university, even if it’s not for them – but once inside, it is filled with insufferable frauds, like Trissotin who has more interest in money than poetry, and self-important people. Viczko’s bright costume colours mask the ugliness of learned people whose true colours are yet to be revealed.
Under Touzin’s robust direction, the ensemble brings to life madcap garden antics that elevate Molière’s satire. Henry brings a larger-than-life presence to matriarch Philaminte, a woman who none in her household dare defy, making her and Teske dynamic all the more hilarious. Dressed with a comically-sized unibrow (the hungry caterpillar, anyone?), Jetté’s physical comedy shines in every scene as she animates Bèlise with sickly, exaggerated expressions that win big laughs from the audience. Daigle is a real treat to watch onstage as she plays Martine with a mix of flirtatious poise and unyielding resolve. Daigle, too, brings plenty of bite to the character by speaking Chiac – a major contrast to the learned ladies’ elegant, grammatically correct French.
Pritchard plays Trissotin with the most hateful arrogance, animating the despicable character as someone who celebrates every single thought they vomit into existence. Pritchard’s portrayal is like a nightmare between Lady Gaga and that annoying know-it-all freshman student whose ‘genius’ is misunderstood.
Strickey’s Henriette is considerably less of a loud-mouth than the learned ladies around her. Still, Henriette is not afraid to speak her mind, and Strickey delivers the heat with cool confidence. Wenzel demonstrates a needed insecurity behind Armande’s snobbish behaviour, as Armande is the most ‘human’ of the learned ladies – the other two are largely caricatures. Armande’s insecurity really comes when Wenzel and Weir’s Citandre clash. Weir does very well playing the audience’s outlet for their frustration towards the pseudo-intellectuals.
Brilliant direction, visually striking design, and strong performances make the SCPA’s production of Molière’s The Learned Ladies a smashing success.
The University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts’ production of Molière’s The Learned Ladies runs Feb 16 – 27 at University Theatre.
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: https://scpa.ucalgary.ca/events/learned-ladies