Actor’s Co-op stages Moliere’s The Learned Ladies (Les Femmes Savantes) with such panache, you’d think they’d been doing the French master on at least a yearly basis rather than a mere twice in seventeen years.

 Tannis Hanson and Thomas Chavira are Henriette and Clitandre, young, attractive, madly in love … and faced with a dilemma—how to convince Henriette’s self-describedly “learned” mother Philamente (Lori Berg) to allow them to wed. Though the young demoiselle’s father Chrysale (Bill Bower) and uncle Ariste (understudy Daniel J. Roberts) are more than willing to support the couple’s marital aspirations, Philamente, along with Henriette’s Aunt Belise (Rhonda Kohl) and her sister Armande (Rory Patterson) will stop at nothing to get Henriette hitched with Trissotin (Stephen Van Dorn), a foppish gent who has bewitched the threesome with his supposed erudition. Audience members, by contrast, are more likely to see this so-called “scholar” as a pompous ass, though a highly entertaining one at that.

 Director Heather Chesley, at the top of her game here, has transposed Moliere’s classic satire from the 1670s to the century-later Age Of Enlightenment, a switch which not only suits Philamente’s love of learning, however misguided, but allows the cast to look absolutely smashing in their Louis XIV tailcoats and britches and Marie Antoinette yard-wide skirts and mile-high pompadours.

By opening the proceedings with a full-cast gavotte (delightfully choreographed by Julie Hall), director Chesley signals the start of something special, as does Vicki Conrad with her sumptuous costumes and Krys Fehervari with her wondrous wigs, arguably the most spectacular garb and hair yet seen in an Actors Co-op production.

 Subtlety gets thrown to the wind—and the comedy is all the more hilarious—for Chesley’s giving her cast permission to go as over-the-top as the ceiling will allow. Berg’s imperious Philaminte and Patterson’s pretentious Armande are delectable treats as are Michael Dye’s and Deborah Marlowe’s standout supporting turns in a grand total of five roles (four male, one female). Chavira and Hanson get to play it (relatively) straight as a couple in love with each other and not with their educations, making for a marvelous contrast with their more outrageous stagemates. Roberts steps into the role of Ariste with such finesse, you’d think he’d been playing it all along. Finally, there are the transcendently terrific trio of Bower (a deliciously doddering Chrysale), Kohl (an uproariously back-bending Belise), and Van Dorn (the preeningest peacock of a Trissotin ever).

Extravagant and outlandish as all this may be, The Learned Ladies’ message of valuing the sincere and the heartfelt over the proud and the pretentious is one entirely fitting the Co-op’s Christian-based mission, all the while providing entertainment and inspiration to audience members regardless of religious, spiritual, or humanistic bent.

 Mark Svastics’ scenic design is provides a simple but elegant backdrop to the onstage shenanigans, expertly lit by Lisa D. Katz.

The Learned Ladies is produced by Kimi Walker. Amy Knutson is stage manager.

It may have taken Actors Co-op seventeen years to follow their 1995 production of Tartuffe with a second voyage to Moliereland, but as The Learned Ladies makes copiously clear, it has been well worth waiting for. So bring on the wigs, bring on the gowns, that Monsieur named Moliere is back in town!

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 20, 2012
Photos: John Dlugolecki

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