Like Tartuffe, Molière's The Learned Ladiesis about the lengths to which the bourgeoisie will go for social validation. In Tartuffe, it was pious spirituality that guaranteed social acceptance; in this lesser-known comedy, it's boorish intellectualism.
Embodying the armchair intellectual's ability to bullshit about things he doesn't truly understand is Trissotin (Logan Sledge), a hypocritical, mediocre poet. Seduced by his sensual charms and the fact that a real poet seems to regard them as kindred intellectual spirits, two women—Philamente (Hattie Davis) and her daughter, Armande (Vandy Scoates), conspire to marry off Armande's sister, Henriette (Lovell Liquigan), to the pedant. It's up to Henriette's timorous father, Chrysale (Frank Astran), and her eminently sensible uncle, Ariste (Rob Hahn), to expose the lying bastard and protect true love from the misguided interference of the Learned Ladies.
It's a flimsy plot, but Molière, as he often did, had a lot more on his mind—like the dangers of knowledge untempered by wisdom, the vulnerability of the disenfranchised to exploitation by those who claim sympathy for their cause, even the provocative notion that education is essential to liberation.
Unfortunately, you have to look hard to find those themes in this production. Director Larry Biederman's pseudo-modern-dress production of Freyda Thomas' translation aims at some obvious contemporary intellectual fads and fashions to update Molière's point: feng shui decorating, boutique Buddhism and yoga. That works, but Biederman and cast overload the play with so many bits and so much gratuitous comic business that Molière's finer points disappear amid the mugging and the pratfalls. It's as if no one trusts the text, which is really too bad: in an age when intellectual demagogues from the right to the left assail us, it's healthy to be reminded that motives should always be questioned, rather than taking arrogant pronouncements and presumed moral superiority at face value.
THE LEARNED LADIES AT CAL STATEFULLERTON'S ARENA THEATRE, 800 N. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 278-3371. WED.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M., SUN., 2 & 6:30 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 20. $7-$9.