nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
February 13, 2009
In an ambitious twist on site-specific theatre, art.party.theatre.company debuts with a presentation of Molière's The Learned Ladies in four different swanky New York apartments over a single long weekend. Overcoming a shaky start, the play emerges as a fine pick for the experiment, challenging the role of the audience and ultimately creating an intimate engagement with the spirit of comedy by the time the happy ending rolls around.
Before we enter the Upper East Side penthouse (where the performance I attended took place) the small audience is instructed to explore designated rooms and view every aspect of the apartment as a kind of museum. Once hospital blue booties cover all of our shoes, we are ushered in by a slouching maid as guests arriving early for a poetry reading. But there is no place for us in the drama that follows: the youngest daughter of the family, Henriette, is in love, but her mother is pushing her to marry a pedantic poet, Trissotin, who also holds aunt and sister in thrall; the hen-pecked father has no say in the matter.
Scenes play out in the living room, kitchen, a bedroom, and outside patio, at times simultaneously. But our movement is awkward—it's not that we aren't willing to participate, but there's not quite enough room for all of us. At times we are in the way, most of the time we stand embarrassed like unwanted guests or ill-placed furniture. When the usually invisible fourth wall of the stage turns solid, real, it's difficult to be the one to breach it. How, for example, do you walk into a room after a character has slammed the door shut in anger—are we suddenly invisible after having been acknowledged as a guest by two other characters? Who are we?
There's also the question of context. The aesthetic is 1960s pop, but the company has selected an old, rhymed translation of the play, and then we see the uncle of the family walk by on his Blackberry. The actors are shouting in archaic language, it's very hot, French pop music blasts from the kitchen, notes written in marker state facts about objects in the room—it's all a bit much, and not intentionally, it seems.
However, once Trissotin arrives for the poetry reading, the audience can now take up a real role as guests in the home, and the play takes off. (Refreshments of freshly baked cookies and cold milk don't hurt, either.) The battle of wits between Trissotin (David Ingber) and his friend and poet rival Vadius (Jess Burkle) starts to carve out a place for the language, and both of the actors make it suddenly fun. Small improvised moments give a hint that this could have been a fantastic opportunity to update this 17th century work, particularly given the overt context of a Manhattan apartment. For example there's a latent sense that the passion for learning is a way for channeling frustrated sexual desire among the women, with Trissotin becoming a focus of this longing. Daniella Rabbani as the spinster aunt Belise in particular plays up this comic effect with gusto. The 1960s costumes also point towards a potentially interesting hippie/square divide (though it's not explored), with Henriette and her suitor advocating love over institutions. The arrival of a letter declaring that the family has suddenly lost its entire fortune is also a surprisingly timely moment, we all laugh giddily when it's revealed as a ruse, and the wealth, and this fabulous apartment are still intact: hooray. The dance party that breaks out at the end is the culmination of our involvement, the experimental in search of a new audience experience most welcome.