The chief reason to see A Noise Within's production of Molière's "The Imaginary Invalid" is Apollo Dukakis' delightfully cranky portrayal of the play's tyrannical hypochondriac, a patriarch who scrutinizes his household accounts as closely as he monitors his bowel movements.
Molière performed the role of Argan while in ill heath, an irony that surely wasn't lost on him. During the fourth performance in 1673, he collapsed and, according to his biographer Virginia Scott, died shortly after at home. (Legend has it that he died on stage, but it might be more accurate to say that he died with his theatrical makeup on.)
The play, operating several rungs below Molière's masterpieces "The Misanthrope" and "Tartuffe," offers a grab bag of the playwright's comic routines and plots. This stitched-together divertissement, complete with dance sequences and musical interludes, opens itself up to alterations, rearrangements and modern liberties.
Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has chosen a springy adaptation by Constance Congdon (based on a translation by Dan Smith) that's full of humorous wordplay about sex and bodily functions not normally discussed in polite company. (Flatulence, an important diagnostic tool for Argan, is a central preoccupation.)
The production, which opened Saturday and runs in repertory through Nov. 19, is overly broad, making this classic seem as lightweight as a vintage sketch comedy TV show. But Molière, I'm happy to report, has the last laugh.
The eye-catching scenic design by Angela Balogh Calin, who also did the flamboyant costumes, transforms Argan's home into a makeshift apothecary that, were it not for the jars of urine on the floor, could easily be mistaken for a fancy perfume shop.
Argan is enthroned in what is essentially a highchair for an adult baby. He wants his pulse checked regularly and his enemas performed like clockwork. When he doesn't get what he needs on the spot, he bellows for his maid, Toinette (a game Deborah Strang), who treats him like a geriatric child, sometimes catering to his pharmaceutical whims, sometimes turning a deaf ear to his plaintive cries.
The play satirizes controlling doctors in much the same way as "Tartuffe" mocks religious hypocrites. Dogma, exploited for personal gain, is the enemy. But the dupes in Molière are often willingly victimized for passive- aggressive reasons. They allow others to take control to do their dirty work.
Rodriguez-Elliott doesn't seem all that interested in whatever psychological subtleties may be found in "The Imaginary Invalid." Her production indulges in horror movie flourishes at points to wring laughs. The audience raucously complies, but the goosing of the comedy suggests a lack of faith in Molière's art.
Rafael Goldstein's hyperactive clowning as Claude De Aria, the doltish young man Argan wants his daughter, Angélique (Kelsey Carthew), to marry in order to have a doctor permanently in the house, gets a rise out of theatergoers. But the silliness isn't easy to recover from.
Much of the play revolves around Argan inventorying his proliferating maladies. But this being a classic comedy, there's naturally a budding romance in jeopardy.
Angélique, desperate to marry lovesick Cléante (Josh Odsess-Rubin), not only has to contend with her despotic father but also her selfish stepmother, Béline (Carolyn Ratteray), a greedy gold-digger who would rather the girl be sent to a convent, where an expensive dowry isn't required.
Molière's characters may belong to another theatrical age but their flaws are timeless. If only Rodriguez-Elliott trusted the enduring humor of the playwright's insight.
Sporting an electrified wig out of "Young Frankenstein," Carthew's Angélique initially comes across as a sight gag. Fortunately, Carthew finds the character's dignity when it matters most, and her nutty pastoral duet with Odsess-Rubin is touching despite the scene's cartoonishness.
The production encourages Ratteray to play Béline's villainy to the hilt. (The character's entrances are announced by thunder.) The shtick is amusing, but the melodramatic campiness lowers the dramatic stakes. (Argan would have to be suffering from severe dementia not to see Béline's extravagant dastardliness.)
Dukakis succeeds by balancing the over-the-top comedy with the right dose of realism. His Argan is at once exaggerated and recognizably human — the complaining scourge of a retirement home that visitors find amusing but residents and staff scramble to avoid.
Paranoid about his health, this classic valetudinarian is really scared of dying alone and unloved. Toinette, always one step ahead of everyone else, masterminds his psychological cure with a plot that grows increasingly unhinged. (Strang, a pert delight as the all-seeing housekeeper, loses her footing when Toinette disguises herself as a distinguished visiting physician in a scene that plays here like second-rate vaudeville.)
Molière's protagonists are driven by forces too painful and humiliating for them to confront. Dukakis, redeeming an uneven revival, makes visible Argan's blind spots without spoiling the joke.
"The Imaginary Invalid"
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: Schedules varies; ends Nov. 19
Tickets: Start at $48
Information: (626) 356-3100 Ext. 1 or www.anoisewithin.org
Running time: 2 hours
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