The Imaginary Invalid
A Noise Within tickles the funny bone with Molière's classic comedy.
During its 25th anniversary season, A Noise Within revives Molière's madcap play The Imaginary Invalid after first performing it in 2001, but this time with Constance Congdon's 2007 adaptation. Zany as a Marx Brothers movie, the farce delves into hypochondria and the perversity of the patriarchy. Though some of the modern speech in Congdon's text is too clever by half, this production captures Molière's irreverent flavor.
Argan (Apollo Dukakis), the supposedly ill man of the title, depends on his doctor's pills, concoctions, and procured enemas to stay alive. Though there appears to be nothing medically wrong with the head of this household, he insists he is sick and clings to his self-diagnosis. When anyone claims Argan is getting better, it aggravates him to no end.
His tough-as-nails servant, Toinette (Deborah Strang) puts up with his squawking, but in the end it is she who controls the house. Argan's young wife, Béline (Carolyn Ratteray), loves her husband's money and little else. His marriage-age daughter Angélique (Kelsey Carthew) has found the perfect man, but Argan has other ideas. Being perpetually ill, the best recourse for him would be to have a doctor in the family cater to all his medical needs, so he arranges for Angélique to marry his quack doctor's son, the off-balance Claude (Rafael Goldstein). That leaves Angélique's true love Cléante (Josh Odsess-Rubin) to pretend to be a music teacher in order to be close to his love. Everyone has a self-serving plan, and those machinations lead to chaotic hilarity.
The comedy is lightweight but fun nonetheless. Argan is a demagogue with concern only for himself. Those surrounding him are meant to suit his whims. It's hard to sympathize with his wife, who schemes to keep her hands on all his money. And Argan's dependence on unnecessary medical procedures speaks to a society being embalmed and never cured, but always drugged up by doctors.
Congdon relies on modern idioms such as "I'm on it" and anachronisms like mentions of Ebola and Dr. Pepper to make his points. But instead of endearing the audience to the 17th-century work, these jokes come off cheap. Molière's work is wacky enough, and The Imaginary Invalid correlates to this year's election and topics of modern medicine well enough so that it doesn't require modernization to draw in today's audience.
Director Julie Rodriguez-Elliott turns the evening into a lark, with cartoonish costumes and wigs, and delightfully embellished performances. Strang dominates as the servant who controls the master. Forceful, but loving in her way, she's both a commandant and a fairy godmother. As the young lovers, Carthew and Odsess-Rubin are both hilariously histrionic. Their impromptu opera is a highlight. And Ratteray has so much fun as the villainess, feigning love for her buffoonish husband, that the audience almost wants her to get her hooks into him.
Dukakis moves like his every muscle aches. A petulant child, his Argan is a dope who doesn't know better and is too powerless to take seriously. With a face vastly elongated by a red horses collar wrapped around it, Goldstein, as the idiotic suitor forced on the ingenue, steals focus from everyone. He parades around like a chicken, attempting to woo, while leaving his intended nauseated.
Angela Balogh Calin's costumes are frilly and colorful, with a preponderance of blues and whites. Her set harks back to a mad scientist's lair. The stage is littered with urine specimens of various colors from florescent yellow to dirt brown. One instinctively tends to hold his breath when taking in the props because one imagines that room would smell quite pungent.
A diverting evening, The Imaginary Invalid is a perfect primer for audiences undernourished in classical theater. Wildly funny and relatable, Molière's 17th-century writing still stands the test of time and even surpasses modern-day farces.