Not everyone is a fan of the comic stylings of Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. "Molière? Funny as a baby's open grave," was actor Laurence Olivier's verdict, or so the lore goes.
There are times when one is tempted to agree. But here – that is right now, on stage at Montreal's Théâtre du Nouveau Monde – is that Molière you hear so much about. The sparkling wit, the skillful skewering of humbuggery, the keen understanding of the human heart.
Director Denis Marleau's 1950s-styled production of Les Femmes savantes – often translated as The Learned Ladies – is a pure delight, thanks to an impeccable display of Québécois ensemble acting that stands with the best from English-Canadian repertory companies like the Shaw Festival.
Molière's plot centres around your usual pair of star-crossed lovers, Henriette (a charming Muriel Legrand) and Clitandre (François-Xavier Dufour, dressed like a greaser).
But it's not an angry patriarch keeping the two apart; indeed, Henriette's soft-hearted father Chrysale (Henri Chassé) is on board with the love match. Instead, it's a trio of women who really wear the pants in this bourgeois household who are standing in their way.
Sister Armande (Noémie Godin-Vigneau) is opposed because she resents that Clitandre is no longer wooing her, while her permanently pickled aunt Bélise (an exceedingly funny Sylvie Léonard) holds the delusion that Henriette's beau – and every man who crosses her path – is actually in love with her.
It's mother Philaminte (Christiane Pasquier), however, who is insisting that Henriette marry a pseudo-intellectual poet by the name of Trissotin (Carl Béchard). Trissotin, who here has a gravity-defying shock of grey hair and recites his pretentious doggerel while striking shaky poses on the edge of the courtyard fountain, is one of Molière's classic hypocrites, with base motives for wanting Henriette that will, of course, eventually be exposed.
Marleau's production is a model of precision – from the actors' alacrity with the alexandrine verse to the way they glide about the stage with the graceful physicality of ballet dancers.
The cast has simply spent a lot of time in these characters' shoes. After two months of rehearsal in Canada and then in France, Les Femmes savantes spent July and August playing outdoors in the courtyard of the Château de Grignan in Provence to about 30,000 spectators. Now, the warm-hearted production has returned to Quebec, arriving in Montreal like an Indian summer, before heading off on a late-autumn tour of the province.
Marleau is perhaps second only to Robert Lepage on a list of Québec's most illustrious directors, known for his technological experimentation and dedication to postmodern stage poets like Jon Fosse and Elfriede Jelinek. Last year, he became the first Canadian director to helm a production on the main stage at the Comédie-Française, the famous state theatre that traces its roots back to Molière's troupe in the 17th century.
Though he had worked at "la maison de Molière," Marleau had never actually broached Molière himself until this production – and he approaches him with a commitment to text that is fresh, rather than fusty. On a set that recreates the outdoors of Provence indoors, his production is smart, stylish and surprisingly straight given his avant-garde credentials. His theatrical touches are subtle, from the video projection of fabric billowing in what are surely the winds of change – the coming sexual revolution – to the circus-style antics of a couple of impressive juggler-valets.
Once one of Molière's most popular comedies, Les Femmes savantes is more problematic today due to one of the targets of its satire – female education. Marleau doesn't apologize for any sexism in the play, however, but only treats its expression of characters who are product of their times – in this case, a time that also allows for Dior dresses and the occasional entrance by Vespa.
What strikes most about his production is how human, rather than caricatured, all the characters are. Even Philaminte, who fires her maid for crimes against grammar, comes across as a genuinely intelligent woman with the best intentions for her daughter in Pasquier's firm and feisty performance. They're all the more amusing for being recognizable, regardless of gender.
Les Femmes savantes runs (in French) in Montreal until Oct. 27.