Commons Theatre

It must have been the weather forecast for Friday night: snow and sleet. There’s no other excuse for the poor attendance at Commons Theatre’s production of Moliere’s Learned Ladies. Thirty people, in a house designed to hold over a hundred, is disgraceful.

Especially for this fresh, sprightly production of a classic work by a man considered in his time and by his own countrymen to be a better playwright than Shakespeare (reminding us that “chauvinism” is a French word). The Commons Theatre company made a wise choice in using the Richard Wilbur translation–it takes a poet to translate a poet. And their decision to set the 1672 play in the Paris suburbs of the 1920s, though it doesn’t add much, certainly does no harm.

The plot is typical of Moliere: Philaminte, her daughter Armande, and her sister-in-law Belise have become rabid culture vultures. And they believe that pursuits philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic are all embodied in an all-purpose paragon by the name of Trissotin. (A more objective witness describes him as a man who “hugs himself / Before his volumes ranged upon a shelf.”) So enamored have the ladies become of cerebral snake oil that they fire competent servants for the impudence of using bad grammar. “We must be / At pains to make these parts of speech agree,” Belise admonishes. To which a hapless maid replies: “Let them agree or squabble–what does it matter?”

Their obsession with the intellectual life makes domestic life difficult for Chrysale, the alleged head of the house, who rhapsodizes over the good old days when wives kept to their housekeeping. But despite exhortations from his brother, Ariste, to put his foot down, Chrysale is reluctant to oppose his strong-willed spouse, who is not above scolding and screaming when she’s not given her way. What finally brings this situation to a head is Philaminte’s determination to marry her youngest daughter, Henriette, to the fortune-hunting Trissotin–much against the wishes of that young lady, who is in love with Clitandre (Armande’s ex-suitor). Of course the match between Henriette and Clitandre has Chrysale’s full approval.

Les femmes savantes (the original title) is not a battle-of-the-sexes polemic, however, nor a diatribe against education for women. At the dawn of the Age of Reason, not even Moliere would have claimed that intellectual activity was anything but a universal goal. The crime of Philaminte, Belise, and Armande is not that they seek knowledge, but that they cannot distinguish between what is real and what is false. Even when Vadius, another poet-philosopher, offers to show Philaminte the classic works from which Trissotin has plagiarized, she refuses to consider the possibility that her hero might have clay feet. Similarly, Armande denies that she’s jealous over the loss of her former sweetheart to her sister; instead she blathers about “Reason’s pure imperatives . . . mastering lusts which lead to shame.” The wise Henriette responds: “You and your intellect would not be here / If Mother’s traits had all been so fine.” The beleaguered Chrysale, even while pompously advocating a return to Kinder, Kirche, Kuche, also fondly recalls his own roguish youth. Inflexibility, dogmatism, a lack of compassion, and insensitivity to human values–these, say Moliere, are what bring unhappiness.

In imitation of the classic dramatists, Moliere wrote his plays in verse–a form that presents difficulties enough for American actors when written originally in English, but is potentially disastrous in translation from 17th-century French. Fortunately, Richard Wilbur is fluent not only in the languages of both countries but also in the language of poetry (he was named our national poet laureate in 1987, after all). He is able not only to reproduce the content and tempo of Moliere’s witty dialogue but to find English-language equivalents for the many puns and double entendres of the original. (And if you think the Uptown Poetry Slam gets vicious, wait till you see Trissotin and Vadius slug it out–nobody can parody bad poetry better than a master.)

The Commons cast, with the assistance of Mr. Wilbur, carry out their verbal responsibilities as effortlessly and gracefully as dancers in a well-executed minuet. Calvin MacLean gives an outstanding, outrageous performance as Trissotin, the quintessential poetaster (rapidly becoming a popular stereotype in Chicago theater). Kelly Nespor does a nice “trouser role” as his rival, Vadius. India Cooper and Frank Nall, as Philaminte and Chrysale, quarrel in perfect harmony. Cooper is ably assisted by Corinne Lyon as the dotty Belise and Michelle Messmer as the bluestocking Armande; Nall by Will Casey as Ariste. Director Karen Kessler has created a very clever visual metaphor by casting only extremely tall men and extremely short women–except for Scott Jones and Julie Walker as Clitandre and Henriette. These lovers are, naturally, precisely the same height. And since no one writes better servants’ roles than Moliere, mention should be made of Scott Verissimo and Maggie Carney, who both make the most of their time onstage.

It will continue to be winter undoubtedly, but maybe audiences will get over their terror of a little snow. One hundred and eighteen theater seats are a terrible thing to waste.