The actors simply sparkle in ‘Learned Ladies’ at Classic Theatre of Maryland

The classic Moliere farce unfolds with the quick grace of a flower blooming in fast motion.

Entering the theater before the start of Classic Theatre of Maryland’s production of Moliere’s The Learned Ladies is like receiving an old-fashioned box of chocolates, wrapped in velvet and satin. Just looking at Salydon Boyken’s set, you know there are treats in store, from the tasseled damask hangings at the long French windows, gently lit as if by twilight (lighting design, Haley LaRoe), to the piles of leather-bound tomes surmounted by a telescope pointed at the heavens, to the floral fainting couch — it’s a French farce, of course there must be a fainting couch!

Ariste (John Pruessner), Henriette (Madeline Saintsing), and Chrysale (Dexter Hamlett) in ‘The Learned Ladies.’ Photo by Sally Boyett

When the characters appear, the delicious impression intensifies. Men and women alike are swathed in yards of damask, satin, and lace in gorgeous macaron colors, sweet, rich, or gaudy as suits the characters, layered with details to delight the eye. Sally Boyett, CTM’s producing artistic director, is also the costume coordinator and choreographer, and she melds the dress and movement into a luscious whole. The ladies handle their ample trains expertly, the characters are always in graceful motion, minuetting as they talk, and the gentlemen’s bows and ladies’ curtseys are equally exquisite.

Moliere’s play purports to be a satire on academic pretension and the inappropriateness of ladies aspiring to intellect. No attempt is made to bring it up to date or give it a feminist gloss, because all the characters are so far from being realistic that it doesn’t matter a bit. One would as much expect social consciousness from a chocolate soufflé.

Henriette (Madeline Saintsing) and Clitandre (Jack Venton) in ‘The Learned Ladies.’ Photo by Sally Boyett

The original, Les Femmes Savantes (1672), was written in verse, and the translator, Richard Wilbur, has done a stellar job of rendering it into rhyming English tetrameter that somehow remains both comprehensible and unforced. Given that he was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1987 to 1988, perhaps that should not be surprising, but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.

Of course, it takes an equally adept cast to present such poetry as conversational comedy, and CTM’s actors are more than up to the challenge. They simply sparkle.

Madeline Saintsing as Henriette, the lovely and luminous younger sister who wants to marry for love, manages to be both vain and sensible. Her extended fainting sequence (hence the couch) is a triumph of graceful slapstick. Shayna Freedman, as her older sister Armande, talks a good game when she tries to scold her sister for giving up the intellectual life for the delights of the flesh, but makes it clear that her real motivation is jealousy. The object of their sibling rivalry, Henriette’s color-coordinated lover, Clitandre (Jack Venton), first appears to be a mere fop, with his blond wig (Tommy Malik’s wig designs are terrific) and huge pink hat, but he more than holds his own in a verbal duel with the master coxcomb, Trissotin (Benjamin Bowman), the fuchsia-clad, ludicrously pretentious poet that all the learned ladies worship. Nancy Krebs plays Bélise, the silliest of those ladies, whose passion is to assume every man is secretly in love with her, to the hilt. Laura Rocklyn portrays Philaminte, the domineering mother and leader of the intellectual clique, who insists Henriette marry the obnoxious poetaster, with such determined elegance that it almost seems natural she should get her way. Dexter Hamlett, as her henpecked husband Chrysale, is a comic tour de force. His masterly assurance crumples to cringing submission with whiplash speed whenever his wife opens her mouth. And his shock at the dénouement, however happy, is genuinely sympathetic. John Pruessner, as his brother Ariste, and Rachael Rabinovitz, as the classic, straight-talking, sensible servant Martine, provide a relieving breath of sanity in the midst of all this silliness. And Isaiah Raxsdale, in a triple role that requires dozing at a dressing table throughout much of the last act, nevertheless shines in an earlier verbal battle in which he challenges the pretentious poet to a literary duel.

The Company of ‘The Learned Ladies.’ Photo by Sally Boyett

These characters are by no means deep. But the actors are having such sly, witty fun with them that they render their shallowness rich.

Donald Hicken’s direction keeps all this wordy but elegant craziness moving at a brisk pace without seeming rushed, which is no mean feat. This 17th-century farce unfolds with the quick grace of a flower blooming in fast motion.

It is silly. It is frothy. It is almost weightless. But it is confectionary of the finest quality.

If you’re in the mood to leave serious fare behind for a bit and indulge in a rich, rare treat, go see The Learned Ladies.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

The Learned Ladies plays through March 5, 2023, at Classic Theatre of Maryland, 1804 West Street, Suite 200, Annapolis, MD. For tickets ($58.50–$78.50 including fees), call 410-415-3513, email [email protected], or purchase online.

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past [mumble] decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters, and programs, and generally theatrically meddled on several continents. She has made a specialty of playing old bats — no, make that “mature, empowered women” — including Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest (twice); Mama Rose in Gypsy and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd — when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.”) She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easygoing. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies. Most recently, she directed, costumed, and designed and painted the set for Rockville Little Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer, for which she won the WATCH Award for Outstanding Set Painting. In real life, she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.


  1. I am totally in agreement with your review of “The Learned Ladies”. It’s a delight from start to finish and the perfect antidote to the present day. I hope Classic Theater will do more like it–soon!


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