It is seldom that a house announcement concerning cell phones, exits, photographs, and so on, is entertaining. In the case of Theatricum Botanicum’s radical reworking of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, that chore becomes a delightful entré into the world of the play. Speaking in a lovely French accent, Lea Madda, dressed in the skimpiest 17th Century maid’s uniform, makes the announcement, followed by the same announcement in flawless French delivered by the amusing Alexandre Wauthier. The audience, well jollied, are then treated to a singing introduction delivered by the caped, masked principal cast from various positions in the outdoor auditorium accompanied by baroque harpsichord. They proceed onto the stage, shed their over-garments and begin the play.
The Imaginary Invalid has been in production since it first premiered in Paris in 1673. The comedy lampoons the rich and the foolish, as well as the connivers and quacks that bilk them. Ellen Geer, Will Geer’s daughter and artistic director of the company, takes the title role of Argan (traditionally played by a man), a career hypochondriac. The opening scene of farts and their olfactory analysis puts the stamp of low comedy firmly in place. She proves that a woman can be just as earthy as a man in the role. The whole scene (and subsequent wind breaking) calls to mind Le Pétomane, the professional flatulist, a farteur extraordinaire.
Argan is a sick woman consumed by imaginary maladies and at the mercy of her medico, Dr. Purgeon (Alan Blumenfeld) and his apothecary, Bonnefoi (Katherine Griffith), a high strung preparer of enemas, Argan’s remedy of choice. Argan is besotted with her second husband (a standard heterosexual realignment), Beline (Jonathan Blandino), a young, handsome gigolo who can barely tolerate his sick, old wife.
And then there is the daughter, the giddy ingénue, Angelique (Willow Geer), madly, and secretly, in love with a young man, Cleante (Max Lawrence). Her dream romance is shattered when Argan informs Angelique that she has committed her to a marriage with her doctor’s nephew Claude (Cameron Rose), a medical student soon to graduate. Mr. Rose has the evening’s most extreme characterization. In a sensational turn, he is more rooster than man, with a red wig piled high atop his head like a cockscomb. His movements are jerkily avian, and his speeches often interrupted, tic-like, with chicken sounds. A bold directorial choice fully embraced by a fearless actor.
All of the above characters have greater or lesser degrees of madness. Only Argan’s servant, Toinette (excellent Melora Marshall), has a level head, though even she has to adopt a degree of impetuous tomfoolery in order to cure Argan of her mental malady and help the young lovers achieve their bliss.
The Imaginary Invalid is performed in a highly exaggerated style that has the effect of lampooning not only the characters and situations of Moliére’s devising, but self-consciously lampoons of the show itself with stylized physical and vocal motifs often done repeatedly, such as when Angelique flings herself on her bed in mock despair. And whenever “the second husband” is mentioned lightening flashes, thunder rolls and a horse whinnies à la “Young Frankenstein,” a wink and a nod to a knowing audience.
As directed by Mary Jo DuPrey, this production of Constance Congdon’s adaptation has quite a lot of singing, making it almost, but not quite, a musical. Does that work? Mostly, and mostly amusing, with a few lapses when the words are indistinct. An extended “improvised” operetta performed by Cleante and Angelique is off-key just enough to be funny and not painful. And a finale composed of a mélange of hackneyed Latin phrases caps a whimsical evening.
The costuming by Vicki Conrad is 17th Century sumptuous.
The Imaginary Invalid continues in rep with Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tom and Titus Andronicus through October 2 at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.