fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

New Moliére adaptation is good medicine

In the heat of a failure-to-communicate moment, Argan, the cranky hypochondriac of "The Imaginary Invalid," resorts to charades, gesturing at his buttocks. Louison, his elder daughter, blurts out the first guess that pops into her mind, "Marquis de Sade?"

It's early in the first act of the adaptation of Moliére's 17th-century comedy that opened Saturday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but it tells us what's in store: body jokes, puns, bawdiness, saucy servants, duck jokes, nerds, tautological absurdity and general silliness.

It is as if Oded Gross and Tracy Young — the team behind the OSF's 2009 "The Servant of Two Masters" — adapted Moliére with an assist from Scaramouche and the Marx Brothers.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Moliére was despised by the conservative establishment of his day not only for ridiculing doctors, religious charlatans and other privileged snobs, but for his incorporation of elements of the Italian commedia dell'arte and French country farce into the formal drama of the day.

Argan (the very funny David Kelley), the invalid, is based on the commedia's Pantalone character. He's rich, miserly and sick (he thinks). Done up in a green and purple bathrobe with black-rimmed spectacles and a halo of frizzy hair, he careens about in a wheelchair with leeches hanging from his belly, puking and whining about his medical bills.

His servant, Toinette (K.T. Vogt), is a comic foil, openly disapproving of Argan's plans to marry his younger daughter to a buffoon and refusing to believe he's ill.

We're in a timewarp amalgam of the France of the 1600s and the 1960s. Not the late, counterculture '60s but the mod, early '60s with vinyl go-go outfits and girl-group songs. Christopher Acebo's eye-popping set plunks an ornate settee on black and white tiles with a fireplace, a wall of books and the odd anachronism: The Eiffel Tower is visible through a window upstage, and hanging along with the portraits (Argan and his wife, King Louis XIV) is a painting by Piet Mondrian.

As the Pantalone character, Argan is the father of one of the imamoratti, or lovers — younger daughter Angelique (Kimbre Lancaster), who loves Cleante (Christopher Livingston), a romantic florist. Argan wants her to marry medical student Thomas (Daisuke Tsuji) so that he'll save money by having a doctor in the household.

Argan's greedy second wife, Beline (Terri McMahon), wants to pack both girls off to a nunnery so she can inherit Argan's wealth with the aid of her ironically named lawyer ("you can tell by his briefs") boyfriend De Bonnefoi (U. Jonathan Toppo), whose name means "good faith."

Comic tropes fly by so fast you don't want to blink or cough. Toinette and Cleante riff on characters from other Moliére plays: the miser, the bourgeois gentleman, the misanthrope. Angelique has an "acquaintance ring." Louison, Argan's positive-thinking hunchback elder daughter, wears a yellow dress with black polka-dots and a watch saying, "What time would Jesus think it is?" When Argon wears a duck on his head his imagined ailments become "malardies."

Act One ends with a Phil Spector-ish, wall-of-sound take on Carol King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," a period chestnut among Paul James Prendergast's sassy original pop tunes. Guy (Rodney Gardiner), a character that's been added to the show, brings more music and some funny bits.

McMahon, who might have based Beline on Natasha Fatale, says incredulously, "So I'm the bad guy then?" Argan, sure he's expiring, imitates the mad Lear ("Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!") and the dying Charles Foster Kane ("Rosebud!").

When a character observes that dissecting a dead body (a controversial procedure in Moliére's day) is "better than an evening of theater," all the characters turn to the audience, deadpan.

Then there's the "dormitive principle" invented by Moliére, in which Argan's caretakers resort to circular arguments in ridiculous attempts to account for a medication's effect. This involves purporting to explain a thing in terms of its own properties with a preposterous hodgepodge of Latin words and non-Latin ones with Latin endings. It plays much funnier than it reads.

The nearest the whole surreal confection comes to a message is the notion that we all need to take responsibility for our health, a sentiment delivered to Argan by his brother, the bear-wrestling Beralde (Jeffrey King), who tells Argan his care is "crap." But "The Imaginary Invalid" is not really about message. It's high-energy spectacle — crazy, colorful, kinetic fun. And if some of the tautness goes out of it in the final act, it's not enough to kill the patient. This is good for what ails us.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.