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The Learned Ladies & Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards

Jonathan Abarbanel reviews Court Theatre's annual two-play rep, one by Moliere and one by way of 18th century Japan. logo
Moliere in the air:
The Learned Ladies
A sure sign of Spring in Chicago is the annual two-play rotating rep which always closes out the season at Court Theatre. This year, artistic director Charles Newell has selected Moliere's erudite verse comedy, The Learned Ladies, in the funny, acidic, and thoroughly felicitous Richard Wilbur translation; and the American premiere of Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards, an 18th Century Japanese romance adapted by Peter Oswald for the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain. Newell has also staged both ambitious productions, and has succeeded admirably in creating a winning double-header which engages eyes, ears, intellect, and feelings in harmonious balance.

Despite the vastly different cultures from which they derive, both plays--written just 42 years apart--examine family structure and the rites of courtship in authoritarian and imperial societies, with the family unit as the microcosm. Both achieve a certain poignancy in their observation of the role of women, who are treated with particular sympathy in the elegant Japanese work. Both are handsomely produced as well as vigorously performed by a company that includes a core of Court Theatre resident artists.

Newell, known for his deconstructionist approach to the classics, walks the straight path this time with The Learned Ladies, a wise choice for one of Moliere's lesser-known works. His design team (Dan Ostling, scenery; John Culbert, lighting; Mara Blumenfeld, costumes) has provided witty period-accurate costuming (including some wonderful wig work), and a massive but handsome, two-story cutaway setting of a fine stone home. The Moliere utilizes the flexible Court stage in a thrust attitude.

Four Score:
Fair Ladies at a Game
of Poem Cards
The visual approach to Fair Ladies... is less realistic and more Shakespearean in its use of a unit set to provide many locations. In this case, Ostling has chosen a proscenium configuration that emphasizes the width of the Court Theatre stage with towering stone ramparts on either side, backed by over-sized Japanese screen walls which seem to have translucent shell panels in the individual panels rather than rice paper. Culbert's subtle and just-plain-lovely lighting includes the glow of lanterns and torches from behind the screens. Joyce Kim Lee, the costumer for this production, eschews historic garb in favor of color-block designs in muted, solid tones, each a neck-to-floor robe with a medieval, European profile, and yet with the volume and drape of material suggestive of kimonos and samurai wear.

The Learned Ladies is reminiscent of Tartuffe in that it's the tale of a wealthy bourgeoisie duped by a gold-digging charlatan. In this instance, the villain is an intellectual hypocrite rather than a religious one, the victim is the wife rather than the husband, and ruin does not befall the duped family. While Moliere pokes fun at women of leisure who indulge in intellectual posturing--the attitude being that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing--he also provides a clear message about a society in which women are constricted both spiritually and intellectually. More pointedly, he shows the dysfunction that ensues within a family when lines of authority and communication are not maintained.

This breakdown of authority--actually, it's political subversion--is also at the heart of Fair Ladies..., to which Oswald has given a Jacobean plot twist in adapting the material from an 18th Century puppet play to a work for live actors. The plot is set in motion when two young samurai, each high in service to the brother of the Empress, break a taboo and establish liaisons with two of the Empress's maids of honor, one of whom becomes pregnant. The Empress's chamberlain pursues the lovers, threatening government stability by playing on Japan's intricate network of family alliances and strict code of honor. The Empress and her brother, however, are compassionate and wise--the Empress is particularly sisterly towards her maids--and eventually bring about a happy ending.

As in Shakespeare's history plays, the underlying message of both works is the need for stable governance at all levels of society, with enlightened leadership at the top. By the final curtain, the threatened ship of state has been steadied and families reconciled, although Newell closes The Learned Ladies with a moving final tableau that suggests an unhealed wound (while Moliere's words speak to the contrary).

To a considerable degree, both plays are carried on the physically slender, but figuratively broad, shoulders of John Reeger, a Court Theatre resident artist. He's the sad-eyed, hen-pecked husband of the house in The Learned Ladies and the mad-eyed, malevolent chamberlain of Fair Ladies... In both, he's understated and intense. Breezing through the Moliere are Jen Dede and Arie Thompson as his contrasting daughters, Hollis Resnik (in a blazing wig of tight, red curls) as his shrewish wife, and Kurt Brocker as the pseudo-intellectual wit who dazzles her.

The Japanese work finds Steven Rishard, Guy Adkins, Kate Fry, and Carey Peters centerstage as the appealing young people who love well before they love wisely, and Lisa Dodson (one of the few actors not in both plays) in a performance of great tenderness as the Empress and the symbolic figure of the Moon. One of Chicago's better character actors, the tall Thomas Joseph Carroll does a delightful small turn in the Moliere, where he uses his patented befuddled charm to advantage and then enlarges himself to the imperial figure of Lord Shigemori, perceptive brother of the Empress, in Fair Ladies...

Newell serves up both plays with great confidence, taking pleasure in the stagecraft and stories that compel the audience. Both are funny--yes, even the Japanese/Jacobean romance is funny--but the plays are balanced in mood, tension, and drama. Perhaps more exciting, through this American premiere of Fair Ladies..., (a reference to a fortune-telling game the Empress plays with her maids), Newell has exposed us to an unknown work of beauty and merit as well as a little-seen Japanese literary classic.

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