The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 24, 2006


Nicole Guild and David Dawson reach back to the 17th century in The Learned Ladies. (Courtesy photo)

CCHS spoofs contemporary culture with Molière's The Learned Ladies

The play is over 330 years old. When it was the latest thing at the Théâtre du Palais Royal, Louis XIV, the Sun King, was on the throne of France promoting, on the one hand, absolute monarchy and on the other, a cultural and scientific enlightenment that rivaled the Renaissance in Italy and the age of Elizabeth I in England. Add to this rarefied atmosphere the voluminous, stiff, unforgiving dress of the period and those outsized wigs, and you have a recipe for stilted, heavy drama, right?

Wrong. Believe it or not, Molière is a sparkler: a wry, scintillating scamp of a comedian, and in the hands of social studies teacher and director Ben Kendall and the cast and crews of the CCHS production of The Learned Ladies, the great French playwright of 300 years ago also becomes hilariously contemporary. Kendall asserts, in fact, that Molière is probably the father of the modern family sitcom.

Move over, Bill Cosby. The Learned Ladies is a family comedy replete with rivalries and manipulation: sisters are bickering because one wishes to marry the other's ex-boyfriend and parents are fighting for influence and dominance over the children. Uncles, aunts, and outsiders, like Carlislean David Dawson's arrogant scholar Vadius, stir the pot and complicate the plot. Women battle men for a place in the world of letters and ideas; men battle each other for preeminence in that world. Molière also tosses into that pot a send-up of the pretensions and hypocrisies of his day, and sure enough, they augur the trendiness and faddism of our own. The result is that The Learned Ladies does what all great comedies do: it makes us laugh at ourselves.

Kendall and his crew have chosen to bridge the centuries and highlight the similarities between our world and France in 1672 by employing well-placed and evocative anachronisms sprinkled liberally about the stage. You will see a cast in period costumes - several periods. Watch for the appearance of an iPod on one of the daughters: the younger one, who is more rebellious and perhaps more normal than her sister. The set, designed in part by Carlisle's Carrie Abend and built by a crew including Eric Johnson, will be full of books on shelves that lean precariously forward, as if to demonstrate the top-heaviness of the 17th-century French preoccupation with culture and literature. Just as the playwright skewers the pomposity of those who read the latest philosophy and avant-garde poetry, however, look for some Tom Clancy and John Grisham books turning up in the father's library: the place where Dad goes to shut out the world, relax and vege out. Listen for the music of Jean Baptiste Lully, a Molière contemporary — and also for Rosemary Clooney and James Brown.

In short, CCHS is bringing us this exuberant satire to us on our own terms. They have done all the work for us; they have met the challenges of the intellectual climate, vocabulary, and history that informed Molière, and from that foundation they have created a production to delight both Louis XIV and 21st-century audiences. Rumor has it, by the way, that one of the playwright's biggest fans, the Sun King himself, is planning to make a royal appearance, and perhaps even address the audience. If Louis XIV is going to the show, how can any of us afford to miss it?

The play will be performed in the CCHS auditorium, 500 Walden Street, on Friday and Saturday evening, December 1 and 2, at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday afternoon, December 3, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $8; senior citizens are admitted free.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito