Molière would be chuckling in his grave if he could see the Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of his final masterpiece, “The Imaginary Invalid,” the tale of a miserly, healthy hypochondriac who’s convinced he is dying.
Irony, bad luck and a real physical ailment killed off Molière in 1673 Paris while he acted in the title role of the play’s fourth performance. The French playwright and actor, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, braved through a coughing fit and hemorrhage while performing on stage, finishing up the play only to collapse and die a few hours later. To his credit, nothing shy of a death on stage would have curbed the revelry of this hysterical farce.
And this production exceeds those expectations.
The obsessively silly satire targets the medical quacks of 17th-century France and the blind obedience of their patients. One in particular, Argan, imagines he is well on his way to meeting his maker despite following his doctor’s strict orders (which includes swallowing daily doses of pills and gleefully succumbing to multiple enemas). Ridiculous premise? Yes. Execution? Brilliant.
The fact that the Shakespeare Theatre nabbed Tony Award-winning actor René Auberjonois (endless credits include the movie “MASH” and TV roles in “Boston Legal,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Benson”) to play the ridiculous protagonist is enough to lure anyone away from summer barbeques and beaches to watch a theatrical classic. A master of drama, as well as of physical comedy, Auberjonois can boast of playing opposite the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Here, he portrays Argan as a buffoonish cartoon character (a combination of Mr. Magoo and Ebenezer Scrooge) stumbling around in a white nightshirt and cap. Argan is wealthy, stingy, “blind,” self-pitying and yes, endearing.
At the start of the play we find Argan at center stage, eagerly perched on his sickbed amid flowing drapes and large pillows, reading his apothecary bills out loud and deciding that he’s not going to pay them in full.
We quickly discover that his selfishness extends well beyond hoarding money when he talks of marrying off his oldest daughter, Angélique, to a doctor just so he can receive free medical care whenever he wants. Meanwhile, Argan is blindly preparing to make out his will to benefit his buxom, provocative and willful step wife Béline, while begrudging his children his fortune.
Auberjonois delightfully carries off Argan’s ridiculousness with far-reaching facial animation and effortlessly fluid gyrations. Molière is not above vulgarity by any means, and director Keith Baxter capitalizes on both Auberjonois’s talent and Molière’s wit to elevate slapstick to another level.
The pure shtick works here, as does the “potty humor.” Auberjonois repeatedly exits off stage after giving himself an enema to relieve himself — it only gets funnier each time — in a full-body gurgle ready to explode. He also buries his head in his wife’s bosom, exclaiming, “You’re the only things I’ve got!” and turns his pinky into a ventriloquist puppet to better pry secrets out of his youngest daughter.
Baxter raises the farcical threshold even higher when Angélique’s arranged husband-to-be — described by his father as “a child who was not lively, or even alert” — drops his outward trousers to impress Angélique with the “goods” she’s about to inherit as his wife.
Meanwhile, Argan’s servant, Toinette, plays along with his egocentric shenanigans, only to later undermine them. This plot element’s predictability could have been passé if the character had not been played by prolific D.C. actress Nancy Robinette, who was just seen in Arena Stage’s “Death of a Salesman” (see May 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Even opposite a genius like Auberjonois, Robinette owns the stage. Her ease and utter enjoyment for Molière’s humor makes it seem as if she is prancing around her living room and improvising a comic routine, rather than speaking pre-rehearsed lines written by a master thespian. She starts off a little slow, but by the time Robinette comes out wearing a black magician cape and pointed hat, impersonating a doctor to fool her employer, the audience is completely sold on her performance.
Enveloping the ludicrous folly of the production are beautiful period sets designed by Simon Higlett, costumes by Robert Perdziola, and an original score by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
Baxter — whose latest Shakespeare Theatre directorial success was Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” — wisely preserved the whole of Molière’s unique style and produced the play as it was originally written. Those original productions included an homage to Louis XIV and commedia dell’arte (“comedy of professional artists”) interludes, which are usually extracted from American productions of the play. Musical and improvisational, these interludes are tailored to the audience and often feature sly commentary on current politics and bawdy humor.
The skits allow the characters to act out real feelings in a make-believe world and are a fitting extension of Molière’s manipulation with the concept of what is real and what is imaginary. But by play’s end, the only thing that’s not imaginary is the inventive quality of Molière’s writing and of the Shakespeare Theatre’s execution.
The Imaginary Invalid through July 27 Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th St., NW Tickets are .50 to .75 For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.