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by Molière, trans. Richard Wilbur 
Theatre at UBC
Frederic Wood Theatre
Feb. 6-16

What is the world of the play?  This is arguably the most vital question faced by a director prior to rehearsal. Once a clear answer materializes, every actor and designer attached to the production can aspire to a final product keenly grounded within the parameters of the play’s given realm.  Theatre 101?  Maybe, but this baby step is often the first casualty of any harried pre-production schedule.  So is the case with Theatre at UBC’s production of Molière’s The Learned Ladies.  When it comes to establishing the world of the play, MFA director Patrick Gauthier has missed the bateau.

In The Learned Ladies, Molière takes aim at the pseudo-intellectuals scattered among the true blue stockings of Paris’s seventeenth century parlor scene.  The chief offender here is Philaminte, a relentless pedant hell-bent on ruling her household with an iron fistful of Horace, Aristotle and the rest of the classics.  Conflict ensues as her daughter Henriette falls for a lover, not a writer, and is backed by her dear old (rather hen-pecked) dad, Chrysale.

So how can a director go wrong with this cheeky little ditty?  To start, graduate student Patrick Gauthier offers no clear take on The Learned Ladies.  At first glance, Gauthier seems to be migrating towards extremes; Carmen Alatorre’s costumes embody seventeenth century France as painted in hyper colors (think a surprisingly pleasing union of Andy Warhol and Betsey Johnson).  Sound designers Craig Alfredson, Patrick Caracas and James Chen seem to be headed in a similar direction but their piped-in electric guitar renditions of the classics occur too infrequently and want volume. Set designer Stephania Schwartz plays with size somewhat but her furnishings are no match for the grandiosity of Alatorre’s costumes. 

UBC’s student actors struggle most to situate themselves in the seventeenth century Paris penned by Molière, a playwright known for his comedies of character and manners. Molière’s affinity for commedia dell’arte is evident in the larger than life personas present in such plays as Tartuffe, The Imaginary Invalid and The Miser.  But in this production the acting lacks such breadth; consequently, comedy, style and characterization suffer.  The student actors can hardly be blamed for struggling with the material as they seem to have been set adrift without a sufficient grounding in genre.  And let’s face it, Molière just ain’t funny without proper pacing, posturing and general physicality.  (And perhaps my own corset is laced a bit too tight, but there’s no excuse for sloppy fan use with many readily available resources pertaining to the specific theatrical language born of this prop).

Nonetheless, some students manage to shine.  Courtney Lancaster and Aslam Husain are often lovely as Henriette and Clitandre, the only characters sensible enough to strike a balance between spirituality and intellect.  Gord Myren is instantly likeable as the whipped hubby Chrysale and Maura Halloran, although saddled with the unfunny task of seducing a telescope, plays mommie dearest (Philaminte) with moments of flair.

Melissa Poll