The Imaginary Invalid. Hmmmm. Why this play at this time? Let’s see:
A self-absorbed, delusional ruler. His squabbling household, each with a personal agenda. Tension between daughter and step-mother. Output at a stand-still. A day-to-day structure built on lies, deceptions and self-interest…
Sound familiar to Americans of 2017?
Naw, couldn’t be.
Still, nothing has really changed since Moliere wrote this acid comedy 344 years ago. Nothing had changed then in the long history of man, recorded and otherwise. That’s why we don’t have to reinvent fools being foolish. Moliere’s version still works just fine. “The ancient are ancient,” one of his characters says. “We are the people of today.”
And every day.
This is muscular, self-assured Moliere, brought to the Old Globe by the Fiasco Theater, a sturdy troupe that even made some sense of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Globe in 2014. This company’s core group apparently has worked together since graduating from Brown University earlier this decade and they share credit for the adaptation of this Invalid from translations by Henri van Laun and Charles Heron Wall.
It is indeed a handsome, fresh, invigorating show, grounded in low-life commedia dell’ arte and high-class treachery of Louis XIV. Yet there’s plenty for audiences just seeking fun. Nobody has ever set up gags better than Moliere and the Fiascos are wise enough to play right along, letting the author have his trademark lengthy rants while trimming with the artistry of a high-priced hair-dresser.
The whole enterprise is aglow with superior teamwork. The actors so obviously respect and trust each other and the style of the performances is so smoothly synchronized that the effect is high-spirited spontaneity. Random chance – a ringing cell-phone, an empty front-row seat – offers embellishments blithely incorporated and then tossed aside. Actors not speaking find corners of the arena stage outside sightlines and park, relaxed but motionless, to focus laser attention on whoever has the line.
This working script pays homage to Moliere’s late-career efforts at including music and dance in his plays, usually as “interludes.” The evening begins with a madrigal by (it says here) Orlando di Lasso and includes a couple of all-hands production numbers plus musical interludes performed by the players on violin, cello, guitar, tambourine and kazoo.
The singing is delightful and the playing is invigorating. But I was transported in particular with gleeful delight by a nightmare scene featuring devilish nuns and zannis tumbling out of a hassock like clowns from a tiny car. Bless the show that yields such surprises.
Maybe the best way to comment on the seven actors, after hailing their ensemble chops, is to hand out awards. The perfect-casting ribbon goes to Emily Young, as the rangy, swift-witted soubrette Toinette, smarter than the rest of the characters combined. Runner-up is Andy Grotelueschen in the title role of Argan, wallowing in pompous self-pity as a supreme hypochondriac. (Ironically, Moliere himself died after a performance in this, his last play, from illnesses all too real.)
Paul L. Coffey gets the versatility prize for tripling as a devious fixer, an incredibly fatuous young quack and Argan’s brother Beralde, the calm voice of reason. He plays cello, too. Noah Brody deserves premium supporting honors for steely, focused menace as a pair of exploitive doctors.
Jane Pfitsch and local favorite Kevin Hafso-Koppman carry off the romantic prizes as Argan’s daughter and the swain for whom she yearns despite her father’s plans to marry a doctor into his family. They also for the backbone of the music-making on guitar and mandolin for him, violin and muted trumpet for her.
As for Jessie Austrian (who shares staging credit with Brody), I’ll just make it a premature lifetime achievement citation for being a handsome, lusty, exciting presence every time she steps on stage as Argan’s venal second wife. It’s not really her best type of role, I suspect, but she’s way, way too much the pro to let that hold her back. And watching her role-play, with just a couple of props, an entire additional character is not only a marvel of the actor’s art but also a shocking concept pursued deliriously with Grotelueschen to its, um, climax. A triumph of conception, adaptation and execution that Moliere himself probably would savor.
This troupe could do this piece in street-clothes nearly anywhere, but instead, they have wily support from clever designers. Both the scenery by Takeshi Kata and Emily Rebholz’s costumes rely wisely on a few luscious pieces: an antique globe which really is a medicine chest, a striped waistcoat aligned precisely with the stripes of the trousers, a formidable enema apparatus, a braided cap a la oriental. Russell H. Champa’s lighting just purrs along until an opportunity like that dream sequence and then, POW!
There just isn’t much not to like about this show or this company. I’d cross the street anytime to see them do anything, the way I’m feeling right now. But their insight is especially valuable when set towards the admirable goal of mining for works that transcend their period.
Or speak vividly to the immediate present.
(Continues on the Old Globe Theatre’s White Stage at 7 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through July 2, 2017.)