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In attempting to pick apart and analyze the strands of my unease with PlayMakers Repertory Company’s (PRC) new production of the classic Molière play Imaginary Invalid, I’ve come to one firm conclusion: each person who sees this rowdy new adaptation by David Ball will bring his or her own experiences with illness and medical professionals to the watching, so the range of responses to the work will be wider than usual. I, for instance, felt anxious from merely examining the set, with its various medical accoutrements, and aware of a simmering resentment at everyone’s disbelief in the invalid’s maladies. Since the basis of the story is that Argan’s only disease is hypochondria, which treatment by quacks encourages and prolongs, it was heavy going for me to engage with the play itself. I would imagine that those who’ve always enjoyed good health would find the hypochondriac much funnier.
Molière, a name he gave himself (as Ball points out in his clever prologue, in which the writer morphs into his main character via powerful actor Steven Epp), wrote in the time of French King Louis XIV. Early Modern science had made its first tentative steps in the Age of Reason, but in 1673, on the cusp of the Enlightenment, science and medicine were often disbelieved and much maligned. The advances in scientific and medical knowledge during the subsequent three-and-a-half centuries have been stupendous, radically changing human life and our expectations about living. Yet now we live in what might be called an era of de-enlightenment, when proven science is blithely denied and medical judgments dismissed. It seems the quacks and predatory hucksters have evolved and proliferated even faster than knowledge.
Thus Imaginary Invalid was an excellent choice for examination by PlayMakers, which should be commended for commissioning a version for today, and bringing in director Dominique Serrand and actors who work quite differently from PlayMakers’ usual style. The theatrics in Imaginary Invalid are far more physical, and far less polite, than I’ve ever seen on the PRC main stage. The raucous circus is sometimes highly effective; at others, the absurdities detract from the story. At times the language descends from refreshingly abrasive to crude and the number of scatological jokes seems unnecessarily high. (On opening night — the world premiere — quite a few patrons evaporated at intermission.) There was rather too much Woody Allen-like shtick for my personal taste, but when it is right it is so right. A scene in which St. Peter (a very funny Jeffrey Blair Cornell) stands on a chair to talk to God on a cell phone, and tells Him that He needs to “smite Verizon,” drew howls of laughter.
Ball has changed many names to indict the guilty or to make contemporary references. We have, for instance, the charlatan Dr. Wachauvia (Cornell in outrageous Carolina blue plaid golfing pants). Argan’s scheming wife is here called Klytemnestra, and the bitch is played to a T by Kathryn Hunter-Williams. Argan’s daughter is renamed Little Angel and decked out like Little Orphan Annie (perhaps a modern version of the Commedia dell’Arte character Colombina of Molière’s time). Katie Paxton, a third-year MFA student in the UNC Professional Actor Training Program, has repeatedly demonstrated her nerve on stage. Here, she climbs straight up a vertiginous ladder and swings herself over to a chair fastened 20 feet above the stage, where she perches, legs spraddled, observing the action for a dizzyingly long time. She is well matched by her beloved, Irving-Luigi, played as a poodle in whiteface (Orphan Annie’s dog/Arlechinno) by fellow student Josh Tobin. He, too, turns out to have amazing physical skills, keeping up with visiting actor Nathan Keepers, who appeared to be made out of elastic. (Those two, encased in white Lycra, do an incantatory introductory dance as Sickness and Death.) Another visitor, Molly Ward, is very good as Argan’s assistant Toinette, who exerts her wiles to save Little Angel from a forced marriage to Keepers’ Dr. St. Judas, the young quack who Argan would like to bring into the family so he could receive free “medical” care.
As you will have gathered, there is both a lot going on and artistic reference stacked upon cultural reference on top of historical reference. One’s ability to keep it all sorted (uh, why is Ray Dooley playing Argan’s brother as a Jersey Mafioso?) is lessened by the impossibility of not dwelling on the astonishing costumes by Sonya Berlovitz. I love costumes, and one of the consistent pleasures of PRC productions is the costuming made in the company’s shop. But when they are so interesting as to distract one from the play’s words and actions, maybe they are a little over the top.
Even though this play is often very funny, and sometimes masquerades as froth, it is no light entertainment. It’s an intellectual pan forte: dense, rich with ideas, and hard to chew. I’m not sure I got all the flavors — I may have to have another piece and see it again.
Imaginary Invalid continues through Sunday, November 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.