An interview with Sara Montgomery, founding member of The New Ateh Theater Group, and Francesca Day and Marta Kuersten, co-founders of Cake Productions, whose theatre companies are teaming up to present a unique, all-female production of Moliere’s classic comedy, The Learned Ladies.
“Henriette is in love and wants to marry the handsome Clitandre. But in her overzealous passion for the new intellectual movement, Henriette’s mother, Philamente, wants to pair her off with Trissotin, a conniving ‘scholar’ and mediocre poet. Henriette’s sister, Armande, is also striving to stop the union, having loved Clitandre herself until she spurned him for intellectual pursuits. Mix in a loony but lovable sister, an exasperated brother-in-law, a couple of mouthy servants, and a father who just wants his tea served in peace and quiet, and voila! The pretensions and excesses of the upper classes are highlighted by Molière’s classic wit and wisdom in this rambunctious comedy.”
How do you think Molière’s comedy speaks to present-day society?
Moliere’s stories explore, with a biting wit and a forgiving eye, the consequences of human frailty; the place where virtue becomes vice and strength becomes weakness. He frequently showcases characters who, in their search for something great or meaningful, give themselves over to savvy scoundrels who cash in on this deep wish. This is an unfortunate, unavoidable part of the human condition, and I doubt we as a race will ever see a time when a story like that doesn’t apply.
What themes or messages do you think this play is communicating?
The main theme centers on the dangers of fanaticism. At one point in the play, the character Clitandre lays out three types of people associated with any movement or religion: #1 – the crazed fanatic, #2 – the humbly virtuous, and #3 – the brazen charlatan. And while the pursuit of knowledge is good, a slavish devotion to it that sacrifices common sense and compassion is bad.
Please tell me about working in an all-female cast. How has it differed from casts of men and women?
We actually have not noticed a difference at all. We are just working with good actors who are talented, nice people, and like always, it feels like a family. Except with more pillow fights…just kidding! We only had the one pillow fight. 🙂
It’s interesting to see an all-female cast in a show written by a man. How do you feel about this play having been written by a man?
Moliere’s masculinity doesn’t have as much significance for me as the society in which and for which he wrote. He lived in a time where rigid gender roles reigned supreme, and in certain ways, the women of the title are fiercely subversive – ambitious and intelligent, downright rebellious considering. Also, it should be noted that the adaptation we’re using was written by a wonderful woman named Freyda Thomas, who’s been very helpful to us throughout this process.
It sounds like this script plays on the word “learned,” applying the term to both intellectual and emotional intelligence. How do you think women portray both of those characteristics?
We often hear about men being “scared” of smart women and women playing down their intelligence when dating. First of all, a real man isn’t scared of smart women, as we all know, that’s for insecure, little babies. Secondly, the sad phenomenon of women putting themselves down when dating is countered by the cliché of a man who puffs himself up in order to impress. While I doubt I’ll ever see the day where people don’t misrepresent themselves to the opposite sex in order to get laid, I’ll consider it great societal progress when women feel they, too, can exaggerate their accomplishments in order to win another’s heart…rather than play those things down.
Do you consider this play to be feminist? Why or why not?
In some ways yes; in others no, and our casting choice addresses the latter of those two, adding another level of meaning to the text, and therefore, of comedy. (For example, a male character portrayed by a woman who declaims “Women!” draws attention and brings irony to a line which so casually maligns half the population.) Certainly, everyone involved on the production end of this show identifies strongly as feminist, and this discussion has been a very important part of our development.
One of the ways I believe it is feminist is that while Moliere fills his plays with foolish characters, he always has at least one person who is the Voice of Reason, Moliere’s personal representative on stage. In this play, he goes by the name Ariste, and while he disapproves of the Learned Ladies fanaticism, he repeatedly praises their strength, aspirations, intelligence and resolve.
The play sounds like it has some great comedic elements. How do you balance the comedy and the more somber undertones?
Paul, our director, smartly insisted that we approach the work as if it were Chekov, that is to say, very seriously. We have found this method works great for a broad comedy like this one. When reading the play, you think it’s all trite good fun, but in performance, it transforms into something else. Those deeper moments, those sadder moments, give the levity of the rest of it more meaning. And when those moments pass, we as actors can get back to the difficult work of trying to make it through a scene without laughing.