CapU Theatre conjures up a punky baroque vision of Molière

Rappers and rock stars all part of modern take on The Learned Ladies

The Learned Ladies, CapU Theatre production of Molière’s comedy Les Femmes savantes, Feb. 5-8 at 8 p.m., Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts at Capilano University. $22/$15/$10, capilanou.ca.

“Beauty without intelligence is like a hook without bait,” Molière once mused.

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Then, in one of his final quill strokes, the French playwright took delight in satirizing the pretensions of intellectual snobbery.

“It is fine for a woman to know a lot; but I don’t want her to have this shocking desire to be learned for learnedness sake. When I ask a woman a question, I like her to pretend to ignore what she really knows.”

Molière’s poetic words would fall on deaf ears in 2019, and even raise ire, if taken at face value. While it sounds like Molière is being sexist, he is attempting to present the idea that any pursuit taken too far creates imbalance.

In directing Molière’s comedy, The Learned Ladies, the challenge for Capilano University theatre instructor Nicholas Harrison was to make the 17th century play relatable to gen Z-ers.

“Students (and audiences as well, to an extent) shy from the classics, and as academics we tend to place the works of famous authors and playwrights on a pedestal,” says Harrison, in between final rehearsals for The Learned Ladies. “It is important to educate the students on the classics, while at the same time drawing parallels to our modern society.” 

A blending of baroque and punk rock seemed “logical to my eccentric self,” reasons Harrison of his theatrical experiment. The play is going to be fast-paced, outlandish, witty, and fun, he promises.

The Learned Ladies is set in 17th century France during the literary salon movement when women, eager to keep up with men intellectually, would often find themselves in the company of opportunists.

Obsessed with all things educational, Philamente is one such “learned” lady and determined to be at the forefront of the movement. So much so that she falls under the spell of Trissotin, a “scholar” and mediocre poet with lots of sex appeal – and lofty aspirations.

Trissotin is to marry her daughter, Philamente has decided, while the wool is being pulled over her eyes. But Philamente’s daughter Henriette has given her heart to another man, and the young lovers wish to marry.

Henriette’s sensible father is in favour of the union, but unfortunately under the thumb of his wife. Propping up Philaminte in her matchmaking plans are Henriette’s aunt and sister – also part of the learned ladies clique and enthralled by Trissotin.

A stage is set for a battle of the witty and not so witty, all posturing under intellectual pretensions while true love hangs in the balance. The flirting, phoniness and outright frivolity play out against a backdrop that is described as rock ’n’ roll mixed with traditional theatre.

“The look of it is not what you would expect from a period piece at all,” teases CapU Theatre set and costume designer Brian Ball.

Learned Ladies
Sam Awuku-Darkoh, Liz Singer and Matt Paynter are featured performers in CapU Theatre’s production of Molière’s The Learned Ladies, running Feb. 5 to 8 at The BlueShore. - Cindy Goodman, North Shore News

Merging baroque and punk rock esthetics allowed Ball to have fun with the costume sourcing.

While working on another show out in Chilliwack, every time Ball had a break he would make a beeline for the vintage shops.

“There are some really, really, really good finds out there,” gushes Ball. “There were some cool tops and jackets that I found that would have cost an arm and a leg in Vancouver that were next to nothing there. Cool and interesting pieces that would just get snapped up in Vancouver.”

When asked to reveal the greatest find, Ball plays his cards close to the vest, in an effort to keep the costumes under wraps as a surprise for the audience.

There will be some wigs, promises Ball, with a laugh.

Ball has 12 actors to dress, some of whom play double roles. On top of that, some of the characters wear more than one costume.

Many different pop and musical influences – a Sgt. Pepper’s military-style jacket is one standout – are infused in these characters’ costumes, which is part of the director’s approach to the show, explains Ball.

“The character of Trissotin was written as a poet but in today’s society he would be a songwriter or in this case a rapper (played by Sam Awuku-Darkoh who has a music career already).”

Ball has been working with a student assistant from CapU’s costuming program who receives course credit for her work on The Learned Ladies. Other students help with alterations and also receive credit.

The props and sets are crafted by students enrolled in the university’s technical theatre program.

Ball holds a master’s degree in set and costume design and worked in the film and entertainment industry for many years as a scenic painter. He painted backdrops for touring bands including Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan and the Tragically Hip, before everything became computer-generated.

These days Ball jumps from campus to campus – including Douglas College and CapU – to help set the scene for their productions. He has also leant his creative talents to Theatre Under the Stars for the past five years.

Asked if the people who work behind the scenes get enough recognition, Ball doesn’t hesitant to respond.

“No, never,” he says with a laugh.

Theatre is a team sport, explains Ball.

“It’s as strong as the strongest player and it’s as weak as the weakest player. You can be recognized for the final product, but you’re not the person who 100 per cent did that – it was a 100 per cent collaborative group effort.” 

Ball encourages people to come to The Learned Ladies performance with an open mind. While olden-day literature can be synonymous with sleepy or laid-back, this show promises to turn Molière’s play on its ear.

“I think this show … definitely has more of an edge than people would think,” says Ball.

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