The Imaginary Invalid(Photo © Claudine Doury)
The Imaginary Invalid
(Photo © Claudine Doury)
The Comédie-Française troupe has been on view locally only four times in the past 25 years, so we haven't had much opportunity to consider the challenges facing a venerable institution that was founded in 1680 and is dedicated to preserving classical French plays.

Since its inception, the compay has operated in the Theatre du Palais Royal -- the building that Louis XIV handed to Molière for continued use in recognition, we may assume, of the laughs that the playwright handed the king. Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin with connections to the court, Molière was struck by his fatal illness on the stage of the jewel-box auditorium in 1673 while performing, ironically, the role of the hypochondriacal Argan in The Imaginary Invalid; he succumbed after the performance, which he insisted on finishing.

Therefore, it's to the works of Molière as well as Racine, Corneille, Marivaux, and Beaumarchais that the building and its succession of keepers are dedicated. Entering the stately edifice and standing in the marble lobby, you feel as though you've walked into a museum. That's the dilemma: In honoring long-deceased playwrights with productions of their oeuvre (modern works are also included in the repertoire), it's essential that the plays don't look like museum pieces. How do you stay true to a classic without such asphyxiating fidelity that the result is lifeless?

Director Claude Stratz's production The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire) is exemplary in this regard. Under Stratz, set and costume designer Ezio Toffolutti has provided a modern take on 17th-century French architecture. Our first sight of the miserly Argan totting up the costs of the medicines he takes is of a man dressed like a crumbling Pierrot, confined within a filmy tent on pulleys. The image is of someplace simultaneously historically accurate and fantastical; it's almost as if René Magritte had designed the stately room, at the back of which are two bricked-in archways. Lighting designer Jean-Philippe Roy throws long, changing beams of light through tall windows. During the intermissionless, two-hour performance, the sound of wind (no sound designer credited) is used as atmospheric underscoring.

Stratz injects urgent life into this play about a man who's certain that he's about to die. Argan (Alain Pralon) strides hither and yon. Often forgetting that he's supposed to be on his deathbed -- a frightening mechanical device -- he greets with varying graciousness the many visitors he has in the course of the two days on which the play takes place. As the action unfolds, Stratz imaginatively stages Argan's opening monologue; a mock opera in which the thwarted lovers Angélique (Julie Sicard) and Cléante (Eric Ruf) declare their love in front of Argan; a burlesque routine wherein the shrewd maid Toinette (Muriel Mayette) masquerades as a quack doctor to end all quack doctors; fake death scenes to snare conniving wife Beline (Catherine Sauval) and absolve Angélique; and a comic medical school graduation carried on in Molière's 1673 version of Pig Latin. Everything but the drawn-out finale is energetically directed and performed.

It helps immeasurably that Molière created archetypal characters; these are the sort of people that malfunction in every era, with only the style of their clothes changing. The geriatric man who misjudges everyone around him because he's so wrapped up in himself is the central figure here. It's Argan, placing his trust in a scheming second wife and in doctors who purge him of cash just as they purge him with daily enemas. The innocent daughter whose guilelessness promises to condemn her to disinheritance and her ardent suitor also continue to be recognizable, as does the wily servant. These staples of dramatic literature turn up later not only in Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox, inspired by Ben Johnson's Volpone, but in countless other send-ups of deathless hypocrisy.

The Imaginary Invalid is a series of comedy sketches strung together with continuity; Argan's thickheadedness is the real glue here. We see him counting pills and money, being coddled by his wife, telling his daughter that a husband has been chosen for her before receiving the red-faced medical student-suitor (Nicolas Lormeau) and his overbearing father (Christian Blanc), watching the impromptu opera with mounting skepticism, and so on. Truth to tell, a number of these scenes might benefit from the kind of trimming that the Comédie-Française overseers would likely never agree to. (On the other hand, the kind of well-made 20th-century play that Molière obviously wasn't thinking about writing is going the way of the dodo bird as the 21st century begins.)

The Comédie-Française thespians, many of whom join the 65-member outfit for life, walk the fine line between curating and creating. Breathing furious life, Alain Pralon has a muscularity and bombast that is funny throughout this production. Muriel Mayette is a tireless and nimble Toinette while Julie Sicard and Eric Ruf are lovely lovers, particularly when raising voices in song at the harpsichord (original music by Marc-Olivier Dupin). Nicolas Lormeau does the most amusing turn as the frightful suitor Thomas Diafoirus, who introduces himself to Argan's family by way of bloated, uninflected oratory.

A sick man himself when he wrote this play about hypochondria, Molière tapped into the universal threat of foolishness. The current Comédie-Française offering, with colloquial surtitles by Mike Sens, proves that something quite old can also be wonderfully new.