The instant Steven Epp as Molière steps out on the stage of the Paul Green Theatre to introduce the PlayMakers Repertory Company’s brand-new adaptation of the celebrated 17th century French actor and playwright’s 339-year-old play, The Imaginary Invalid, to a 21st century audience in Chapel Hill, it is clear that this is no average resurrection of a classic. Instead, Molière becomes a character in his own play; and the present is woven into the production — often hilariously and often erratically, but always with an eye on the original story.
The story about Argan (also played by Steven Epp), a wealthy hypochondriac convinced he has every disease known to man (especially those that originate from bowel problems), is rife with sight gags and pratfalls and totally insane characters (spoiler: there’s not a normal one in the bunch). From the moment Argan receives his first shot of antiseptic spray from his nurse (Julie Fishell), it is clear that writer David Ball, who created this adaptation especially for PlayMakers, and director Dominique Serrand have a bona fide hit on their hands, a hilarious and fast-paced retelling of the comedy that was Molière’s last play — and, ultimately, the one that killed him, because Molière died onstage while playing Argan on Feb. 7, 1673. Though there’s nothing funny about the French master of comedy dying onstage, there very definitely is something funny happening on the PlayMakers stage with this adaptation.
The play opens with Argan introducing his various maladies while his nurse (Julie Fishell) tells him what his bills are for the various tests. It is fairly certain that most people in the audience could relate to the shock Argan feels at the cost for invasive tests that ultimately tell him nothing about what is really wrong with him — or how his quack of a doctor, Dr. Wachauvia (played by Jeffrey Blair Cornell), will cure each of the various ills. When Argan has had enough of the bills, he calls (and calls and yells) for his assistant Toinette, played by Molly Ward, and thus begins a constant parade of people in Argan’s life who clearly see through his hypochondria and use it to try to bilk him of his wealth.
One of those people who couldn’t care less about Argan’s money — and is just as crazy as he is — bounces onstage and throughout the play with a delightful zaniness. She is Argan’s daughter Little Angel, played with a zest and wide-eyed craziness by Katie Paxton. Paxton contorts into positions that put a pretzel to shame, and is so adept with facial expressions that it is a disappointment when she turns toward the other side of the stage and her fantastic elasticity cannot be seen.
Katie Paxton’s ability to play the angelic brat with a puppeteer’s deftness and a personality that mimics the monstrous horror of a Chucky doll brings histrionics to the first act that only escalate as the bizarre characters continue to do their pirouettes onstage. Little Angel’s love for Irving Luigi (played by Shakespeare veteran Josh Tobin) is what drives her, and that love (as most loves) is what makes her crazier than she already is. When Luigi finally arrives onstage, the combination of the two of them makes for hilarity personified.
Argan’s psychosomatic illnesses lend themselves well to jokes that most grade school children find irresistible: fart jokes, breast and sex jokes, pratfalls, and goofy characterizations. They also elicited plenty of laughs from the opening night/world premiere audience, though the loudest guffaws came from a totally unscripted comment made by Argan when a pre-teen made for the bathroom about midway through the first act.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Epp called out, never missing a beat and remaining in character as Argan. Everyone in the audience dissolved in laughter, though the boy didn’t seem to notice; and the play continued without interruption.
Molière’s ability to use satire to expose religious hypocrisy translates well to this period in time when most Americans are concentrating on the presidential elections; and David Ball’s new adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid works hard to expose one of the central issues in the current campaign for president: the obsession with the state of health care in the United States. From the moment Argan takes to his bed, nightgown flapping, it is ironically clear that the “lesser” health-care workers (the nurse and the Bucket Boy, aptly portrayed by Nilan Johnson) are the wisest of the bunch.
The doctors are fools who work for Argan only because of his incredible wealth. They have no idea what is wrong with him, if anything, and simply play along with his imaginary ailments (one of which appears to be easily fixed, according to the nurse. Simply “wash the dingus,” she says, over and over). Without revealing the ending of this farce, suffice it to say that it is a joke recognizable to all and, ironically, mirrors Molière’s own tragic end.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 23rd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Elizabeth Baker: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2012/10/imaginary-invalid and Oct. 28th review by Katelyn Trela: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2012/10/imaginary-invalid_1028; Oct. 24th Durham, NC Independent Weekly mini-preview by Zack Smith: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/imaginary-invalid/Event?oid=3168928; and Oct. 10th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh preview by the BWW News Desk: http://raleigh.broadwayworld.com/article/PlayMakers-Presents-IMAGINARY-INVALID-Opening-1024-20121010. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Triangle Theater Review’s Oct. 23rd preview by Robert W. McDowell, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/22611/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Molière’s IMAGINARY INVALID, the world premiere of a new adaptation by David Ball, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3, 2 p.m. Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6-10, and 2 p.m. Nov. 11 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $20-$40, except $15 Tuesdays, $10 UNC students, and $12 other students.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY (7529) or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.
NEWS RELEASE: http://uncnews.unc.edu/content/view/5623/107/.
NOTE 1: There will be FREE post-performance discussions with the creative team on Oct. 31st and Nov. 4th.
NOTE 2: There will $8.50 Student Matinees at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 1st and 7th. To reserve tickets, e-mail email@example.com. For more information, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/outreach/matinees.
NOTE 3: There will be an Open Captioned performance at 2 p.m. on Nov. 3rd. For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption.
NOTE 4: Arts Access, Inc. (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) of Raleigh will audio-describe an All-Access Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 6th, which will also feature sign-language interpretation and Large-Print and Braille programs and — if requested in advance by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org — a tactile tour of the set.
NOTE 5: At 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10th and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11th, there will be FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions sponsored by the N.C. Psychoanalytic Foundation (http://www.ncpsychoanalysis.org/), the Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://ldf.org/), and N.C. Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/).
The Imaginary Invalid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Imaginary_Invalid (Wikipedia).
Molière: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molière (Wikipedia).
David Ball: http://www.playmakersrep.org/ (PlayMakers Repertory Company).
Dominique Serrand: http://www.playmakersrep.org/ (PlayMakers Repertory Company).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council.
This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.