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If memories of Daniel Fish’s uproariously Hollywoodized Misanthrope weren’t already making patrons giddy as they approach the director’s latest stab at Molière, a glance at The Sisterhood’s V-shaped set would surely do the trick. One whole wall is doors—portals crammed together so tightly their jambs overlap, promising such a profusion of on-the-run entrances and hastily beaten retreats that traffic considerations evidently kept designer Jim Kronzer from squeezing in so much as an umbrella stand for decoration.
He compensates by turning the set’s other wall into an enormous painting—a riot of color and scrawled free-form verbiage excessive enough to overflow the vertical surface and puddle on the floor. Solid as this wall looks, it camouflages three more portals through which cast members will soon stumble, leer, kibitz, and otherwise wreak havoc.
In short, a more ideal setting for farce would be hard to imagine. And when four of the doors open in rapid succession to a techno-pop beat, revealing not just characters who’ve been stylized to within an inch of their lives by costumer Jane Schloss Phelan, but also saturated shafts of crimson, gold, chartreuse, and electric-blue light, the effect is almost violent. Two years ago on this Round House stage, The Misanthrope achieved something close to sensory overload using just stark white walls and mirrors; here, the same designers have already trumped themselves with their opening image.
Alas, it turns out they’re dressing up substantially less interesting goods. The Sisterhood—which is what Ranjit Bolt has called his contemporary adaptation of Les Femmes Savantes—takes Molière’s story about a sensible young woman who must outfox her silly, loftily literary mother, sister, and aunt to marry the man she loves, and turns it into a misogynist tract. Where the original pokes sly fun at intellectual pretension, Bolt’s adaptation takes potshots at pretentious women, which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same thing.
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The effect could easily have been softened in performance, but not with the director and his cast tricking up individual comic stereotypes and situations as if the play’s overall arc and impact didn’t matter. Every entrance feels choreographed, every gesture polished, but as the three harpies who form the titular sisterhood trash all things masculine and champion the literary merits of a mincing charlatan, the audience is left contemplating an evening in which men may be vain, or ineffectual, or poseurs, but women are actively hateful and stupid.
Part of the problem is that The Sisterhood’s only empathetic character—common-sensical Henriette (Carol Monda)—is merely an onlooker at battles her dithering father (Michael Tolaydo), well-meaning uncle (Kevin Reese), and intemperate fiancé (Howard W. Overshown) wage on her behalf. Monda was a refreshingly feisty heroine in The Misanthrope—sharp, brassy, and well-spoken. But her Henriette must content herself with sending comparatively bland emissaries to fight for her interests while she politely parries the idiocies of her severely tailored mom (Naomi Jacobson in power-feminist overdrive), man-hating sis (Holly Twyford), and slatternly auntie (Sheira Venetianer).
That these three are determined to marry Henriette to the ridiculous Trissotin (Michael E. Stebbins)—a flamboyantly talentless poet whose flowing mane, high-heeled pumps, translucent slacks, and billowing, 10-foot scarves make him look more like a society matron than a potential groom—is only the most obvious evidence of their ditziness. They’re also enamored of the amusingly ghastly scribblings he and his pretentious buddies commit to such mediums as toilet paper, oversized origami cranes, and even a towel that gets twisted into a penile sculpture.
The director has clearly had fun inventing these images for what the play’s literary poseurs term “concrete poetry.” At one point he even sends a fleet of paper airplanes flying over a wall for no better reason than that it will prompt a laugh in a passage that’s been needing one. But he’d have been better advised to find ways to gentle the dialogue a little, so that the author’s brand of overstated feminist rant (“…sociology, hermeneutics…disciplines like these won’t beat you up”) wouldn’t crash quite so insistently into male obliviousness. At one point early on, Henriette’s dad actually says something about a woman’s place being the kitchen, which pretty much castrates him as a force for good in the play. Tolaydo is an old hand at finding empathy in unpleasant characters, but his bag of tricks is not bottomless.
All the actors have their moments, but between the obviousness of the writing and the predictable nature of the plot, the evening wears out its welcome well before it reaches its galloping (and surprisingly clumsy) curtain call. A glance at the time will tell you a mere 80 intermissionless minutes have passed since Kronzer’s wall of doors opened in that initial burst of activity, but somehow the evening’s promise, and even its colors, have faded.CP