Theater Review

Playmakers' 'Imaginary Invalid' is fun but Molière it's not

CorrespondentOctober 30, 2012 

  • Details What: “Imaginary Invalid” by Molière, presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company. Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC-Chapel Hill, Country Club Road. When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Nov. 6-10; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Nov. 11. Tickets: $15-$40 Info: 919-962-7529; playmakersrep.org

Molière’s 1673 comedy, “Imaginary Invalid,” skewers quack doctors, exorbitant medical bills and gullible patients in ways that are relevant to today’s health care issues.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of an updated adaptation is full of hilarious gags, amusing characterizations and knockabout routines. But it takes so many liberties and adds so much silliness that the original play is all but discarded.

There have been many contemporary stagings of “Imaginary Invalid,” especially in recent decades. But most still stick with the main storyline of the rich hypochondriac who tries to force his daughter into marrying a doctor (to have one in the family) while fending off his greedy wife, who wants him dead as soon as possible.

While those plot threads are still discernable in David Ball’s adaptation, so much has been added and changed that they become minor incidents. Ball deserves credit for working in the character of Molière as narrator, who then becomes the hypochondriac Argan (appropriate because Molière died playing the role). And Ball’s punch lines are wittily pithy, although too reliant on jokes concerning sex organs and passing gas, and are unnecessarily loaded with crude language.

Noted French director Dominique Serrand puts the piece in a circus-like atmosphere, giving characters Fellini-esque personalities (aided by Sonya Berlovitz’s colorful, over-the-top costumes) and layering on vast amounts of Three Stooges-style physical comedy. He keeps the action fast-paced in the first act but the second act loses steam and focus.

The cast members wholeheartedly throw themselves into the concept, especially Steven Epp as Argan, using every possible verbal and physical manipulation to keep the laughs coming. If Jerry Lewis and Tim Conway come to mind, it’s more in homage than direct copying. Katie Paxton, as Argan’s daughter, Little Angel, combines airheaded innocence with youthful connivance most winningly. Company stalwarts Julie Fishell, as the bored, put-upon Nurse, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams, as the wily, two-faced wife Klytemnestra, turn in some of their best work. Molly Ward gives Argan’s assistant Toinette appropriate practicality and sassiness, but her second-act scene, in which she pretends to be a doctor, goes on too long with too much shouting.

Saturday night’s audience giggled and guffawed continually, a recommendation in itself for those wanting an evening of light entertainment. But anyone familiar with the original may wonder why so much of it was abandoned for easy laughs.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

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