Thursday, March 06, 2008

Theatre: Big Mo (Lière)

Molière's The Imaginary Invalid Adapted by Constance Congdon, Directed by David Schweizer, Seattle REP through March 22, 2008

The first thing I noticed this time out was the audience - prepped for "the usuals" that could be found at a supposed Seattle Rep production, I was instead amused at the large number of apparent theater newbies - those who had problems finding their seats, that had been away from the theater for a while, and not sure about the proper forms of theater-going. And I wondered, why would these folk come to this play.

And then it hit me - it was all about the language requirements in High School. All these newcomers had taken High School French, and were subjected at that point to Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) in either his original form or in some bastardized youth-friendly version (or in the case of the Lovely Bride and I, hauled off for a field trip to watch the play in its original French). And after all this time, after the scarring episode of trying to decipher the 17th century playwright put up there in lights with Shakespeare, they have returned to figure out if it was all worth it.

And the answer is, yeah, it was. Molière is farce (thank god nothing in the promotion materials hit it up as a romp), and the presentation remains true to the form, though ranging wildly into commedia dell'arte, vaudeville, and just a touch of the Catskills. Adapter Congdon is confronted with not one but two hurdles to bring the play to its audience - one of language and culture (French), and one of 400 years of time. And she pulls it off, by retaining the skeleton and building up new flesh on top of it. I went back to a summary of the play and yes, she edited out at least two character, but at the same time kept the framework and the beats, building with frantic anticipation to the finale.

Yes, to the irritation of purists, the pastoral shepherds at the start, singing the praises of good King Louis, are gone, replaced with the ensemble cautioning about doctors and quacks, more in line with the play itself. And this works very well in that it established each actor as playing dual roles - their assigned role within the play and as part of the ensemble - recognizing themselves as part of the production and therefore self-aware of its foolishness. A nice touch, and hard to pull off.

Farce is played broadly, and the actors do their best with the meaty material they have. And this is an advantage of Repertory style - we've seen a number of these people before from comedies and more serious roles, and are prepared to see them go over the top in their current assignments. Again, the dual presence as ensemble and assigned role works out well - they KNOW they're going over the top, and YOU know that THEY know, and THEY know that as well. It makes for a comfortable comedy conspiracy.

Ah, the plot - Argan is the titled hypochondriac, who seeks to marry off his daughter Angelique to the idiot son of his doctor, Purgeon. Said idiot son, Claude, is about to be made a doctor himself, and Argan seeks free treatment for his imaginary ailments as a result of the match. Angelique, though, has fallen for young, handsome Cleante. Argan's (second) wife, Beline is meanwhile conspiring with M. de Bonnefoi, her notary and lover, to send Angelique off to a convent and seize the family fortune. Working against Argan and Beline's plots is Toinette, the maid, who is the wise servant to Argan's foolish master.

It all unspools much smoother than the summary, aided and abetted by a comfortable cast who get across the sense of fun. Rocco Sisto and Alice Playten have to hold the center as Argon and Toinette, and the former whines and moans continually while Toinette provides that strong Vaudevillian/Berkshires tone of attitude, accent, and asides. Zoe Winters as Angelique is channeling Carol Burnett, and Andrew William Smith as her true love Cleante is similarly invoking Keanu Reeves. Comfortable mainstays like Julie Briskman (the cackling Beline), Ian Bell (the cloddish, chicken-like Claude), and David Pichette (excellent and underutilized Dr Purgeon) all throw themselves into the work.

And some throwing may be necessary - the stage itself is an ingenious contraption of a moving outer ring, rotating walls, and a mostly bare center, dominated by Argan's sick chair, his throne for the proceedings. Yet is is all quilted in white fabric, which both creates the vibe of a padded room (probably intended) and just screams "deathtrap" to any actor who has to dance across it (probably unintended). Normally I point out such stagecraft as jiggery-pokery that detracts from the play itself, but here, it most definitely works, and contributes to the ever-increasing franticness of the play until it culminates in a mock ceremony where Argon is made a doctor, so he can tend to himself. This last Vegas-style song rings out the play, and yeah, only after you're a safe distance from the theater, can you start poking holes in it.

But why? It is a farce, though an industrious and professional one. Its comedic intentions do not reduce the amount of effort and sheer talent of the craft. And while the crowd did not rise for an ovation (at least not for the matinée), they did something I had not seen in a long time - on the way out, they were laughing and repeating jokes. I've seen serious productions that have left the audience a little shell-shocked, but in this case, they carried the good feelings with them (The Lovely Bride is still singing chorus of that last number).

And that, is a success. May the Farce be with you (Oh, you saw that one coming, right?)

More later,