THE SISTERHOOD (MAUCKINGBIRD): A delightful hi-brow comedy skewers hi-brow pretensions

sisterhood-mauckingbirdWhile some plays are heavy three course meals, THE SISTERHOOD is definitely dessert. Mauckingbird, Philadelphia’s to go-to company for gay themed theater, presents Ranjit Bolt’s saucy 1989 translation of Moliere’s The Learned Ladies. The five-act verse play is condensed down to 75 minutes of witty comedy with updated, tasty rhymed couplets.

The sisterhood of the title is led by a mom, Philaminte (fab Donna Snow), who wields the power in what is more a Parisian literary salon than a home. Her daughters, her disciples, live in their mother’s pseudo superior world of books, ideas, language, and bad poets. Mom’s so obsessed with language, she even fires the maid (lively Grant Uhle) for horrendous grammar: “He’s got the syntax of a child of three.”

The daughters Henriette and Armande (David Reese Hutchison and Nate Golden, respectively) are played as sons, but retain girls’ names.  Armande, who disapproves of marriage, wants admirers. Henriette is in love with honest, level-headed Clitandre (Kevin Murray). But Mom plots to match Henriette to the supremely untalented object of her philosophical affection, the awful poet, Trissotin (Luke Brahdt). He is not unaware of the benefits of marrying into a wealthy family.  

Matt Tallman delivers a sympathetic Chrysale, Philaminte’s long-suffering, pussy whipped, and well intentioned husband. (Moliere himself played this role in his 1672 production.) Sensible Ariste (Tom Trudgeon), Chrysale’s brother, wants him to stand up to his wife.  And as Belise, Chrysale’s sister played as a man, outré Doug Greene puts the capital Q in queen. Matthew Mastronardi, with a ludicrous spit-curl hairdo, plays a bad poet and provides cello interludes.

The Louis Quatorze-inspired set design has clever little touches, like gilded corners that define the performance space. Within it director Peter Reynolds has the actors buzzing about in their decorative 17th century costumes, using cell phones and taking selfies.

Bolt, the famed translator who updated this play, keeps the rhyme structure’s cadence while totally playing around with it, camping it up while working in references to super linguist Chomsky and semiotics, among other anachronisms. The strong cast is up to the challenging script, and their pointedly amusing delivery delights as everyone waits to see how they’ll twist the ends of their lines.

It is Mauckingbird’s mission to look at classic texts through a gay lens and they do themselves proud with THE SISTERHOOD. If you go to see this creampuff of a play, and you’ll want to do that, you might want to get to the Latvian Society a little early to take advantage of the cozy little in-house bar, as there’s no intermission.

[The Latvian Society, 7th and Spring Garden Streets]  February 3-21, 2016; mauckingbird.org.

Read another Phindie review by Joshua Millhouse.

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.