The Imaginary Invalid

By Molière (Washington University Performing Arts Department)

The problem with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin -- Molière (1622-73) -- is that he came of age in an era when "theater" meant music, vocal performance and ballet, not to mention the actual reading of lines. So this son of an upholsterer had, shall we say, a very different sense of padding than most modern theatergoers. But what we would identify as the dramatic portion of his plays remain vital and psychologically acute. His ongoing relevance can be attributed to his relentless concision as a scenewriter, as well as a profoundly deep understanding of human nature. (For the most part, this is confined to a gleeful examination of the seven deadlies, though one or two virtues invariably emerge unscathed and glorified.)

Vanity, miserliness, lust and hypochondria were Proustian madeleines to this actor/manager/writer, who filled a dessert tray for his last play, The Imaginary Invalid. Like much of his work, it's a play without a traditional hero. Argan is old, wealthy and terribly committed to being ill. His second wife, Beline, is supposedly devoted to his care but actually involved with the local notary, and his daughter, Angelique, has her own secret love affair with young man Cleante (who's just as clever romancing his miss as his namesake is in the previous The Miser). Overseeing them all is Greek chorus/deus ex machina character Toinette, the maid, whose sympathies ostensibly lie with the daughter but who doesn't mind dishing out humiliation to all. Argan is committed to marrying Angelique to Thomas Diafoirus, a doctor from a family of doctors, as a way of ensuring himself "perpetual medical attention," which is just enough plot for Molière to pour transports of scorn on the practice of medicine, education, banking and law. Like Lear, Argan has his interlude howling in the wilderness, but his Fool can actually encourage him to get a degree, and so the play ends with the imaginary invalid transformed into an imaginary doctor.

After three centuries, the plays are in public domain, but the translations, alas, are not. Would that William Whitaker, who directed the Washington University Performing Arts Department's enjoyable production of The Imaginary Invalid, and Paul Azzara could have "updated" any one of several serviceable translations (Richard Wilbur's or John Wood's, for example). Their desire to make the whole text and context of Invalid accessible to a modern -- and, perhaps, specifically collegiate -- audience should not be quibbled with. For example, the substitution of "enema" for earlier translations' discreet terms such as "injection" is laudable. However, the modernization too often consists of a disorienting pastiche of modern slang (Argan is occasionally "pissed off"), syntax and vocabulary with faux-Restoration English. Much of the glory of Le Malade Imaginaire's wordplay -- and that which most distances his work from Shakespeare's -- is Molière's utter mastery of the very limited palette of Academie-authorized French. His buffoonery is never less than precise.

The Imaginary Invalid originally included four incidental programs in addition to the main three acts: a pastorale in honor of King Louis, a love farce, a dancing troupe of egyptiennes in blackface with monkeys and a Mummerish burlesque of a med-school graduation ceremony. Whitaker and Azzara dispense with the first two, wisely enough, and then, with choreographer Christine Knoblauch-O'Neal, crank up the dance as a sex farce (translating blackface to "Turks"). And they render the baccalaureate tolerably well -- it's a tour de force of completely transparent Latin and Argan's pidgin medicalese. There's far more English in the translation than there was French in the original, but then, we don't pick up as much of the Vulgate in church these days as we used to .

Yet Molière's still-trenchant critique of hypochondria and the healing profession is elegantly served by the PAD's professional-quality period set, costumes and props and a talented cast. The student actors are frequently younger than the ages they're required to play, but there are commendable performances and great gusto is taken with small roles. As Argan, Sam Reiff-Pasarew is a lovable dumpling in a nightshirt made of the most billowy material I've ever seen outside of a Robert Wilson production. (What is that cloth? It had the aerodynamic qualities of rolling fog.)

The play begins as Argan reviews his medical bills, intermittently attended by Toinette (Yael Berkovich) and unilaterally bargaining down his creditors for sundry evacuations and potions, bowel-refreshing and various remedies. (What pleasure would Argan take in our "herbal supplement" industry?) Reiff-Pasarew resembles a Belushi brother who lacks the antic, mad gleam, which is a pity, because the part could use it. When Argan roars, everyone onstage needs to quake, but he's mostly adorable without being edgy. Yet he grows in the part, and by the grand finale, he receives his "degree" with a delightful mix of dignity and childlike glee. Berkovich has good instincts as Toinette, the insufferably efficient puppet-mistress of the household, and when she and Argan spar, both actors bring a little more bounce to the action. Yet during her frequent audience asides, what's wrong with bringing her literally out of the action to the underutilized downstage lip of the Edison? Perhaps it's because of Chris Pickart's set, which features doors (to slam) and a creamy back wall with columns and windows, not to mention oversize chessboard floor squares, ever so slightly reminiscent of a 19th-century sanitarium.

And the actors, all of whom are spectacularly costumed by Bonnie Kruger (the sewing crew gets a 4.0), look so good against the scenery in their sumptuous Louis Quatorze hoops and breeches. They sport enormous curly wigs, perhaps more White-snake than Versailles, but no matter (though the women are coiffed more elegantly). As daughter Angelique, Jennifer Kenney brings a delightful voice and a somewhat dazed affect that work well for her in this unrewarding part, and it's clear why she's enamored of towering Eddie Kurtz, who makes an ardent lover Cleante. Jennifer Worth makes a lubriciously gleeful stepmom-from-l'enfer Beline. She's at her best making time with John Spernoga's Bonnefoy directly behind Argan, who's planted in a humorously perfect wheelchair (sure, it's Dumpster-rescued aluminum, but it's painted a sumptuous gold, with ivory brocade upholstery).

Excellent work comes from Paul Pagano and John Brandt, playing Diafoirus pere et fils as fops on a mission. Son Thomas stumbles perfectly through the gaseously formal rhetoric of his greetings while father Diafoirus glows, "He's never shown an ounce of imagination -- an ideal physician." Shewan Howard, as the enema master ("M. Purgon," in case you don't get it), moves beautifully in his stiff costume, full of comic umbrage at the rejection of his great gifts. And Dan Gospin, as Beralde, is consistently sane. On the whole, "Habemus hereus, a good situation!" with this Invalid, as the president of the medical college crows in praise of his profession.

The Imaginary Invalid continues through April 9.

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