All too often, attempts to reset classic plays in alternate contexts founder on ill-conceived analogies whose source links are tenuous at best and annoyingly arbitrary at worst. More infrequently, insightful one-to-one re-mappings can bridge time and place with potent connections (Ian McKellen's film of Richard III as a 1930s fascist dictator being a recent example).
Rarest of all is a totally self-defining context that illuminates every facet of a familiar work in ways we could never have anticipated, even knowing the premise.
That's exactly what we find in Beth Milles' dazzling, ground-up re-envisioning of Moliere's final work, "The Imaginary Invalid," as existential carnival at the Actors' Gang. Performing in the round under myriad antique chandeliers suspended from the exposed flies, the high-energy ensemble, with its painted faces, wild gesticulations and freewheeling slapstick, evokes something akin to Beckett filtered through the Cirque du Soleil clowns.
Watching the ingenuity with which each line of dialogue has been physicalized, it would be easy to conclude the production had been developed entirely through movement, with the words restored almost as an afterthought.
Yet for all the spectacle, the piece remains a resolutely theatrical experience with assured and extensively rehearsed actors in command at all times. At heart this is exactly the self-styled "comedy-ballet" Moliere intended.
In the title role, Daniel J. Parker is a festering, egocentric delight as a wealthy hypochondriac whose temper tantrums browbeat everyone around him into pampering his imagined ailments. Naturally, the hypocritical doctors--the butt of some of Moliere's sharpest barbs--are only too glad to oblige.
But his excesses are a strain on his long-suffering, impeccably differentiated family. As the daughter in love with a handsome youth (Daniel Passer) but pledged to marry a doctor's foppish son (Steven M. Porter), Dina Platias is literally on pointe, cycling from swooning passion to hysterical rage from a variety of ballet poses. Patti Tippo is an arched portrait of calculating greed as the second wife protesting only her concern for her husband's welfare. And Molly Bryant as the mischievous servant throws the essential monkey wrench into the established order.
Not only does Milles' staging tame Moliere's bucking bronco of a play, she's even restored its two usually omitted commedia dell'arte interludes. Composer Larry O'Keefe's score enfolds the music originally written for the piece in 1673 within an eclectic tapestry spanning every conceivable style, while Alix Hester's macabre costuming, Russell Champa's garish lighting and Rachel Hauck's sparse, off-kilter set define the technical parameters for this all-encompassing alternate reality.
In this wickedly funny marriage of Moliere's satire with the Actors' Gang's take-no-prisoners intensity, there's so much going on that a second viewing can be recommended without qualification--sit in a different section to see a another ring of the circus.
* "The Imaginary Invalid," Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends April 13. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.