Last weekend I had the best time at the Annual Theatre Forum held at the Round Top Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas. Each year the weekend’s activities and presentations are built around a theatre-related topic or person. This year’s topic was Molière (1622-1673) and the theatre of the French Baroque period.
Lucky for me I knew very little about any of that, so I was all ears. I learned quite a lot, for instance, did you know that the name Molière is a one name moniker like Madonna or Cher? His real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, but he took on this alias to save his family from embarrassment because of his occupation as an actor (in those days, highly disreputable) and over the shame of having had to go to debtor’s prison for a spell.
Molière is considered one of the foremost comedic playwrights in Western literature. He wrote Tartuffe, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Le Misanthrope, and Psyché, to list a few. He lived during the colorful period of King Louis XIV (1638-1715). He and his acting troupe won favor with the king, eventually becoming the “Troupe de Roi” (king’s troupe) with the privilege of performing at the Louvre and the Palais Royale.
The speakers at this forum are the same each year and are a big part of the attraction. They are a group of very learned, talented, and fun people. Our first speaker was Felicia Londré, a renowned theater historian, actor, director, author of twelve books, and fluent French-speaker. She is the Curators’ Professor of Theatre at the University of Missouri – Kansas City where she teaches theatre history and dramaturgy. Her talk and power point images introduced us to the historical period of the 17th century, what was going on in the French theatre at that time, and why Louis XIV always had a shapely leg or two poking out from under his exquisite robes in every portrait ever painted (because he was a dancer and proud of them)!
Our next speaker/singer was Vern Sutton who spoke about French Baroque opera whose star composer was Jean-Baptiste Lully. Vern opened with an aria from a Lully opera accompanied by Keith Chambers on the piano. He sang two more while delivering his presentation. Talk about explaining, then demonstrating, all by yourself! A retired University of Minnesota professor of opera, Vern is also an accomplished actor, opera performer (tenor), and was a regular performer in the early years of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.
Ann Thompson, opera maven to all of Houston – and beyond, as well as friend and opera mentor to me, spoke next on the subject of dance. Ballet was king, and a variety of social dances were also very popular. The court of Louis XIV spent months at Versailles without much to do except, eat, drink, flirt, and jockey for the king’s favor. One’s expertise at dancing was one important way to gain favor with the opposite sex as well as the dance-obsessed king.
Another aspect brought out by Ann was that it was smelly and dirty at the elegant Versailles since bathing was customarily performed only twice a year and there were no facilities for bathroom business. Perfume was generously splattered on oneself, and there was even a special little tool to scratch one’s head (underneath the voluminous wigs) which was probably crawling with fleas or other critters.
Ann lives in Houston where she speaks to a variety of groups about opera: doing the pre-opera talk at Houston Grand Opera (HGO), describing the opera there for the blind, and hosting a long-standing salon at her home where she speaks in depth about each upcoming HGO production as well as any other related subject that might come up.
The next event was another highlight. Stage movement and director Michael Harvey spoke to us briefly about the clothes, manners, and personal style of the people in the court of Louis XIV. Soon, we were invited to learn how to stand, walk, bow, and flirt in the 17th century way! Important accessories were fans and handkerchiefs (lacy ones meant wealth). The erogenous zones of the period were the hands, neck and the area just below the neck (nicknamed the “brisket”). Movement and posture were modified to attract attention to these “sexy” parts. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun with this. At the end we learned a few steps of the minuet, one of many popular court dances.
We heard from Tom Foral, veteran Broadway and regional theatre actor and painter of portraits and other things, about the new developments in stagecraft and set design led by the Italian Giacomo Torelli. He introduced machinery to change sets quickly and allow actors to fly through the air or descend onto the stage from above. His innovations were all the rage and changed theatre stagecraft forever. Tom’s expressive and sonorous voice would be heard later in a staged reading on Sunday morning.
Concurrently with all this stimulating stuff, three movie adaptations of Molière’s plays
were shown: The Misanthrope, The Miser, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Tours of the beautiful grounds were also offered as well as rousing walks through the woods each morning led by Ann Thompson. I would be remiss if I did not mention the outstanding meals we were served, including the traditional Saturday lunch served al fresco, along with wines with the evening meal. The menu items are planned with the weekend’s theme in mind, so we enjoyed French dishes: Beef Bourguignon, Chicken Cordon Bleu, éclair, etc.
Saturday night’s after-dinner entertainment included a trio singing a Lully number from a 1668 comedie-ballet, and the showstopper: Felicia Londré delivering a dramatic soliloquy from Racine’s Phèdre. As she spoke in French, I was mesmerized by her embodiment of the broken-hearted lover, and did not need the translation to know what it was all about. Felicia’s talents seem to have no limit.
Our final entertainment on Sunday was a performance of the Molière comic bonbon called Scapin’s Schemings. Scapin is the quintessential wily servant
who easily manipulates his employers. It was performed as a staged reading, had 10 characters, and was directed by Chesley Krohn. The cast was filled out by actors from the Unity Theatre in Brenham, professionals all. Expertly done and very funny, it was a perfect way to end a fun and enriching weekend.
I cannot close without crediting the wonderful Kate Pogue who has produced the Theatre Forum weekend since its beginning in 1998. She says it’s a labor of love, but I imagine there are times when she could pull her
hair out. Kate is another brainy talent: a playwright, librettist, theatre director, and author of at least two books on Shakespeare. And on top of all that, she is the most charming and welcoming person you would ever want to know. Thank you, Kate, for another completely unique and entertaining weekend!