“Shakespeare & Company was based on a production of The Learned Ladies,” said Tina Packer. This historical tidbit was surprising because, of course, the company was founded on and is primarily dedicated to the works of the guy it’s named after, and The Learned Ladies is a comedy by Molière.
S&Co’s founder and the director of its current production of Molière’s satire explained this genesis at a talkback following last Sunday’s performance. In 1977 she was commissioned to direct the play at Smith College, in a new translation by Richard Wilbur, then a visiting artist at the college and soon to be the nation’s Poet Laureate. The following year, Shakespeare & Company’s premiere season included that play, thus establishing the “& Company” part of its mission.
Packer was joined at the talkback by Wilbur himself, now 90 years old and still possessed of a forthright charm and a dry wit—both of which are also in evidence in his supple rendering of the 17th-century French text into English verse that is still “full of artifice,” as Packer approvingly observed, “but very natural and lively.”
Wilbur explained that as a translator of nine Molière plays, he aims “to be as literal as possible without getting sucked into specifically French constructions.” A member of the cast, which joined the talkback in costume, remarked that she found Wilbur’s version “bubbly,” unlike others she’s done, which were flat and forced, adding, “I love saying these lines!”
The Learned Ladies parodies the intellectual posturing Molière saw in the Académie Française, as well as what he saw as women’s pretentions to dabbling in male spheres. “I disagree with almost everything Molière says,” Packer admitted, “but he’s so funny and such a great storyteller!” She’s also made one of the male roles female, “to add a sensible woman to the mix.”
The farcical plot concerns a Parisian household where a domineering wife has joined with two of her three daughters in idolizing a flamboyantly affected poet and trying to marry him to their sweet sister Henriette, who loves and is loved by dashing young Clitandre, who in turn is coveted by her two sisters.
The youthful cast is composed of company members who are on site year-round and spend the off season helping to run the company’s education programs. They rollick through Packer’s lickety-split staging, which emphasizes Molière’s roots in Commedia dell’Arte’s exaggerated gesture and action. “More than anything,” Packer said, “Molière needs tremendous energy.” And because her actors are young and agile, “they can go to extremes.”
Which is just where they go, scampering and pratfalling, matching their high energy with even higher decibels—but not always standing on the same stylistic stage. Within the 11-member cast the gamut is best represented by two of the three sisters—from Jennie M. Jadow’s operatically deluded Bélise, whose performance is virtually a tantrum, to Kelly Galvin’s self-possessed Henriette, with Alexandra Lincoln’s Armande fluttering between her two sisters.
Dana Harrison, as their super-aesthetic mama, finds the happiest mean between subtlety and burlesque, her refined la-de-dah regularly dissolving into a poisonous glare. And company favorite Ryan Winkles brings his patented narcissistic sneer to the role of the fraudulent poet, along with a Three Musketeers goatee and a sarcastically obsequious bow.
Through March 25 at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.
Chris Rohmann can be reached at StageStruck@crocker.com.