All-Female Cast Brings Feminist Sensibility To Molière’s Comedy ‘The Learned Ladies’

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allentown, PA — In directing Molière’s “The Learned Ladies,” opening Feb. 20 at Muhlenberg College, James Peck had two choices.

He could either let Molière’s 17th century sensibilities take the reins, and produce a play about the absurdity of its female characters’ efforts to educate themselves. Or he could dig a bit deeper, and find the ways in which Molière’s comedy reveals a nobility and bravery in those efforts.

“I can see two versions of this play being produced,” Peck says. “It could certainly be done as a misogynist satire, and some directors really want to steer clear of the play because of that. But I think it more fundamentally — and the version we’re trying to do, certainly — is a play about the ridiculous lengths that men have sometimes gone to in order to keep women from educating themselves.”

In other words, it’s the sexism that’s absurd, rather than the ladies themselves — at least most of the time. In support of this perspective, Peck has cast women in all of the roles, male and female — including his faculty colleague Francine Roussel in the role of Belize.

“I think having an all-female company of women who are themselves ‘learned ladies’ underscores the point,” Peck says. “And to be fair to Molière, often his female characters are the savviest people on the stage. As soon as you start thinking that the women are ridiculous, they do or say something that’s really kind and beautiful and insightful.

“The play is also blindingly funny,” he says. “I mean, these intellectual ideas are important to me, but the humor is as well.”

“The Learned Ladies” runs Feb. 20-23 in the college’s Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre. Broadway lighting designer Rick Fisher, winner of the 2009 Tony Award for his work on “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” is designing the lights for the show as part of a semester-long residency.

For Peck, the project also represented an opportunity to work with Roussel, who returns to the Muhlenberg mainstage for the first time since “Cabaret” in 2005. A native of France, Roussel was among the founders of the Actors Studio in Paris. She has written and performed her own shows, and continues her acting career in France and America. Her numerous film and television credits include “Sex and the City,” “Saturday Night Live,” and Sydney Pollack’s feature film “The Interpreter.” Roussel directs frequently for the Muhlenberg mainstage and teaches acting at Muhlenberg.

“Working with Francine has been an incredible pleasure,” Peck says. “She’s a truly skilled actress. She has really penetrating insight into what’s happening in the scene, as well as tremendous comic timing.”

In his 1672 satire of culture pretentiousness, Molière asks whether a woman can be both a devoted wife and a devoted scholar. Henriette and Clitandre wish to marry. Henriette’s father and uncle are in favor of the match, but the women of her family are obsessed with the allure of salon culture, and wish for her to marry Trissotin, a pompous but mediocre poet. Henriette must decide whether she should live life as a highly educated but unhappy woman, or whether she can continue her education without sacrificing love.

The production features a 1978 translation by acclaimed poet Richard Wilbur, in which “words dance delectably,” according to The New York Times.

The set for the play, designed by Muhlenberg design professor Curtis Dretsch, is a giant armillary sphere — a model of celestial objects consisting of a series of concentric rings that spin around one another. The design concept reflects the characters’ desire literally to map the heavens, and more broadly, to come to a greater understanding of the universe around them.

“The sphere provides unusual playing spaces for the action of the show,” Peck says. “It also serves as the perfect image for the women’s learned enterprises.”

“The Learned Ladies” will be performed Feb. 20-23: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. Performances are in the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre, in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre.

Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department offers one of the top-rated college performance programs in the country, according to the Princeton Review rankings. Muhlenebrg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. It has been named annually among the Fiske Guide to Colleges’ top 20 small college programs in the United States.

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Muhlenberg’s ‘Three Sisters’ Looks For Common Ground Between Audience And Characters

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New adaptation of Chekhov’s classic concludes

Muhlenberg mainstage season, April 26-29

Allentown, Pa. (April 15, 2012) — Holly Cate has been teaching Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” in her acting classes for years. So when the opportunity arose to direct the play for the Muhlenberg College mainstage, she knew what she wanted to do with it: get the audience past their preconceptions to find the universal appeal of the play.

“I wanted to move us away from the response of ‘This is what happens to these crazy Russian people,’ and find the common ground between the characters and the audience.” Cate says. “I’ve lived this play so many times in my life. I’ve been every character.”

“Three Sisters” runs April 26-29 in the Dorothy S. Baker Theatre, in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance. It is the final play in the Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance Department mainstage season.

Cate says that audiences tend to have a lot of misconceptions about Chekhov, particularly that it’s humorless or that nothing ever happens in his plays.

“There are a lot of very funny moments, and of course some beautiful moments of tragedy as well,” she says. “Chekhov is so generous with his characters. He never lets anybody be the villain or the spotless hero. These are people I know.”

A new English language version of the play by American playwright Sarah Ruhl has been particularly instrumental in helping the actors find the humanity and the natural rhythms of their characters, Cate says. Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf‘s novel “Orlando” was presented last season on the Muhlenberg mainstage.

“This translation is just so human and so elegant” Cate says. “Ruhl understands the rhythm of Chekhov. These characters interrupt each other all the time and hardly ever finish a thought, and the writing makes it easier for the actors to find the rhythm of events crashing into one another.”

Also vital, Cate says, have been the contributions of Sioned Papparotto, a senior dance major, whose official title on the production is “choreographer,” but whose contributions are a little harder to characterize.

Cate started the production process working with dance faculty member Corrie Franz Cowart, with whom she has previously explored the movement aspects of the play in her acting classes. Cate and Cowart had some fairly well developed ideas of how movement might play a role in the staging of the play. But then Cowart had to leave the project for another sort of production entirely — triplets, born March 30.

Enter Papparotto, a veteran dancer and choreographer, who brought her own approach, and who took the play in some unexpected directions.

“I thought that adding the element of choreography to the play would be mainly about rhythm, and that hasn’t been the case,” Cate says. “Rhythm has definitely been an important element in Sioned’s work, but her contributions have even more to do with her amazing sense of space, and of bodies flowing through space. The piece is always moving. It’s never still. And that’s what Sioned’s work brings to the production, that sense that the house is humming with life.

“I staged the play,” she says, “but Sioned made it flow.”

This is by no means Cate’s first foray into incorporating movement into theatrical performances. She has previously performed in the dance theater productions of colleagues Troy Dwyer and Charles O. Anderson, including their original production “Caw” and last season’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in which she played Prospero. Dwyer returns the favor in “Three Sisters,” playing the role of Chebutykin, an old army doctor and friend of the family.

“I’ve called in some chips for things I’ve done for him on his productions,” she says with a smile. “He has to be drunk and dance and sing in Russian; he said, ‘You can’t possibly want me to do this.'”

His more profound contribution, though, has been in bringing a deeper understanding to his character and to the play.

“I have always know that, if I ever directed this play at Muhlenberg, I would want Troy to play that role,” Cate says. “I played Prospero for him, and now he’s playing Chebutykin for me — two characters whose journeys are at least in part about confronting their own mortality.  He’s been willing to wade into some pretty dark territory in this role, and I am forever grateful.”

Ultimately, Cate’s goal for the production is that audiences will see past the play’s Russian-ness and “classic” status, and that they will find and relate to its essential humanity.

“We’re trying to tell a story that people can relate to,” she says. “Maybe they’ll see these characters, and they’ll say, ‘That’s my friend up there,’ and maybe forgive the person a little. Or they’ll say ‘That’s me up there,’ and maybe forgive themselves.”

The play features costume designs by guest artist Liz Covey, scenery by Timothy Averill, lighting design by Curtis Dretsch, and sound design by guest designer Kristian Derek Ball. Jonathan Phillips is the production stage manager.

Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department offers the top-rated college performance program in the country, according to the Princeton Review’s 2012 survey report. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance.

“Three Sisters” runs April 26-29. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m, and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under, $7 for students, faculty and staff of all LVAIC colleges. Performances are in the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

Tickets and information: 484-664-3333 or http://www.Muhlenberg.edu/theatre