The Imaginary Invalid
Adapted by Constance Congdon
Directed by Ron Lagomarsino
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
June 13, 2007
Photo: Kevin Berne
American Conservatory Theater has commissioned a new version of Molière’s “The Imaginary Invalid” by Constance Congdon (who also created a verse adaptation of the playwright’s “The Misanthope” for ACT in 2000). From the moment a trio of singing doctors in commedia del’arte costumes begin an operetta-like prologue calling all medical practitioners quacks and “schmucks”, you know you’re in for an evening that takes an irreverent approach to this 1673 play, Molière’s last. Unlike operas that get modernized in setting and costumes but retain the original music and text, Congdon has tinkered with the entire play, creating something that retains much of the spirit of the original comedy, but eliminates characters, an entire act, and almost all of the playwright’s own words.
This works well for a cartoon-colored, physical comedy that moves quickly and lightly through a couple of hours of easy-to-follow (re-engineered) plot. But purists, and even those who have seen the play in other productions, may find the affair somewhat sacrilegious. What ACT does best here is create a perfect entertainment for summer tourists and others looking for accessible entertainment. And thanks to the actors and direction (by Ron Lagomarsino) there is a high laugh quotient, leaving little room for bewilderment or obfuscation. Molière has been sit-commed.
As Argan, the invalid, John Apicella offers a portrait of self-obsessed ridiculousness, especially in his opening monologue, which is punctuated with long bouts of flatulence. Nancy Dussault, as Toinette, his maid-servant, has a great dead-pan comedic style, although an extended section in which she impersonates a man in the last act falls particularly flat. In fact the whole play runs out of comedic steam about 3/4 through, leaving the wrap-up to arrive as a relief the director may not have intended. Silliness has its limits.
One of the aspects that separates ACT from other theaters is its use of a resident acting company (often augmented with outside performers). With René Augesen playing the gold-digger second wife, Béline, Congdon beefed up the part in order to give her some juicy opportunities to be funny. Similarly, Gregory Wallace as the ridiculous suitor (of Argan’s daughter) Claude de Aria, Steven Anthony Jones as Doctor Purgeon, Anthony Fusco in a couple of subsidiary roles, and, especially Jud Williford as Cléant, the lover to the daughter, Angélique, and Allison Jean White, as the pretty young woman, all had their chances to show their comic abilities. For the most part, everyone in the company was sure-footed and well-timed. This “Imaginary Invalid” is good medicine.
Michael Wade Simpson