To Americans, French stuff can be a little intimidating. Who hasn't circled around a dome of fois gras waiting for someone more Frenchy to take the first greasy swipe? OK, maybe that's just me. But you probably think French people like to laugh at our manners and mores, right? They sometimes do. When Todd VanAmburgh and the sparkling cast of Seabury's "The Learned Ladies" invite us into Madame Philamente's wacky 17th-century parlor, we realize they also like to laugh at themselves and their own silly, foppish Frenchness.
Van Amburgh selected Freyda Thomas' 1995 translation of the original script, and the actors have internalized the dialogue so completely they never once stumble over the lilting rhymed-couplets in which the entire script is written. They are absorbed in their characters, delivering naughty double-entendres, ridiculous proclamations and biting barbs seamlessly.
Statuesque Tatiana Bradley is perfectly cast as Madame Philamente. When she blows onto the stage - behemouth beehive, twinkling tiara, floor-skimming cape - the audience is held in her sway. We know exactly why her husband, Chrysale - played by Clyde Engle - stutters and cowers in her presence. Van Amburgh could not have asked for a more perfect physical foil for Bradley. Engle stands a good foot or two shorter than she (counting the beehive); it's funny enough just to see them next to each other.
ERIC ROLPHE photo
Miles Kelsey dazzles “Learned Ladies” Megan Kirton, Tatiana Bradley, Ariella Brandon with his je ne sais quoi.
Hayden Ezzy and Scarlett Engle anchor the madness as Clitandre and Henriette - the two reasonable lovers who just want Philomente's marriage blessing. Chrysale (Henriette's dad) gives them the thumbs-up, but mommy dearest has decided Trissotin - a deadbeat chalatan poet who's sponging off the family - would be a better match for her tragically normal daughter. Miles Kelsey's Trissotin oozes, gyrates and mugs like a comedia dell'arte villain ought to. It's great physical comedy, and it makes the "learned ladies" swoon, especially when it's coupled with some empty, shallow poetry.
Some of the play's funniest moments involve VanAmburgh's expertly-directed supporting cast. Drew Streb flaunts his range as Trissotin's wild-haired fellow-fop, Vadius, and the perplexed Judge who just wants to figure out exactly who's going marry Henriette so he can get the nuptials over with - and escape the craziness. As the Judge, Streb produces one perfectly timed disapproving grunt. It sums up the whole mixed-up affair perfectly and sends the audience into an uncontrollable giggle fit. Earlier in the play, Streb's Vadius engages in a violent, unforgettable pencil fight with Trissotin.
Makena Wright plays Martine, the maid Philamente fires on the grounds of "grammar murder," with complexity and compassion. Martine and her fellow servant Vadius are the real heroes in Moliere's farce because they actually do something useful - well, unless you consider empty pontification, artless manipulation and fruitless ranting useful. It's funny as heck, sure, but useful? Mais non.
* "The Learned Ladies" plays at the Seabury Hall Performing Arts Studio at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $11 for adults, $9 for senior citizens, and $5 for students; available by calling 573-1257.
The actors use every inch of the theater-in-the-round staging to their advantage and the audience's benefit. There's really not a bad seat in the house.
If you have the chance to catch "The Learned Ladies" this weekend, get your derriere up to Seabury Hall toute de suite. You'll have so much fun, you'll yearn for more, more, more Moliere!!
*Contact Marnie Masuda at firstname.lastname@example.org.