The Rep updates Moliere with TV comedy riffs

The Imaginary Invalid is full of belly laughs, thanks to a compendium of farcical shticks brought off with sure touches and fine acting.
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A scene from <i>Imaginary Invalid</i>, now playing at Seattle Repertory Theater. (Chris Bennion)

The Imaginary Invalid is full of belly laughs, thanks to a compendium of farcical shticks brought off with sure touches and fine acting.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as the French playwright Molière, died for The Imaginary Invalid, the play now at the Seattle Repertory Theater (through March 22). Suffering from tuberculosis, Molière, at the age of 51, wrote his final comedy in 1673 around the effects of his debilitating illness. Playing the principal character of Argan, a mostly chair-bound hypochondriac, Molière lasted for four performances before succumbing to the disease only a few hours after his last show. What a way to go. Argan, a self-absorbed kook certain of a mounting catastrophe in his viscera is easily pushed around by charlatans and other fakes. Worried about the cost of his health care, especially pricey, apothecary concoctions for rinsing his bowels, Argan ignores obvious signs of his wife Béline's gold-digging and shoves his loyal daughter, Angélique, toward unwanted betrothal with an apathetic physician. The new son-in-law, Argan presumes, will treat his many symptoms for free. It's easy to imagine Molière cracking up his biggest fan, Louis XIV, with a broad performance of the long-suffering Argan, for whom everything and everyone must bend to his endless care. If Seattle Rep's new production of the play avoids slavish deference to Molière's original text, it certainly grabs for the kind of belly laughs he would have worked hard to win. It has more flatulence jokes than an average episode of South Park and a commitment to unabashed silliness Playwright Constance Congdon's loose adaptation of the play is not tempted, surprisingly, to explore an updated satire of Invalid's health care crisis. While the doctors in Molière's story reject such medical advances as the idea of blood circulation and bristle at expectations that patients should actually be cured, Congdon doesn't even inject a dry, sideways reference to the unaffordability of modern medicine. This Invalid isn't a vehicle for topicality so much as it is a contemporary, sketch-based variation on the farcical traditions and stock characters Molière drew upon. Embracing the essence of commedia dell'arte, Congdon riffs on Molière rather than clinging to his text, freeing the production to exploit contemporary comic touchstones. It even work in a pop-culture zinger in the form of a Diet Pepsia pun on dyspepsia. This might not be the Molière play one can still read in a classic paperback or download from Project Gutenberg, but in its own way it is a living testament to his legacy. Congdon cuts a couple of key characters but taps today's equivalent of the playwright's buffoons. She never strains for hipster credibility, yet much of her inspiration seems to come from classic television. Thus, the fawning young doctor to whom Angélique is promised in Molière's original becomes a freakish bird-man (Claude de Aria) that could easily have stepped out of a Monty Python bit. Zoë Winters' Angélique is strikingly reminiscent of a young Catherine O'Hara from her SCTV glory days, with bursts of feral energy that make her body simultaneously lurch in different directions. When she cries over Argan (Rocco Sisto) late in the show, she channels Lucille Ball's trademark "waaaahhhhâ'ꂬ¦" Congdon's entertaining revisions find a dazzling reception in Riccardo Hernandez's plush, velvety set of concentric circles, the outermost ring a revolving band giving occasional rise to slapstick mirth. The way in which the stage itself becomes a winking joke is typical of the show's flirtation with breaking the fourth wall and bringing an audience into the act, another brushed-up allusion to comic antiquity. Everything rides on the crisp technique of director David Schweizer's risible cast and the careful balance of clownishness and human compulsion. The play's centerpiece is a prolonged, funny sequence in which Angélique and her would-be beau, the puppyish Cleante (Andrew William Smith), express their feelings for one another through a terrible, improvised faux-opera before the puzzled gaze of Argan, his quack doctor (David Pichette, as always a master of timing) and the latter's weirdly poultrified med student (de Aria). It's like a great sitcom moment from a generation past, with taut absurdity anchored by each character's genuine anxiety over his or her dignity and emotional survival. A deadpan Alice Playten as Toinette, one of Molière's insightful-servant characters, and the trashy villainy of Julie Briskman as Argan's second wife, Béline, also bring a fresh spirit to The Imaginary Invalid's whirl of renovated comic conventions. As with everything else about this production, their performances seem to be all over the continuum of shtick history, in the best possible sense.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Tom Keogh

Tom Keogh is a longtime writer about classical music, books, and film.