KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 4, 1998
History repeats itself. And so does comedy. To see the manic mayhem of a 17th century burlesque juxtaposed with a 20th century rendition is to see humor, theater and history in the making… Try a dose of Molière followed by a chaser of Michael Frayn. May the farce be with you…
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, “The Imaginary Invalid,” Molière’s 1673 mockery of medical-men, is as timely as yesterday’s managed-care bill. But, dramatically and medically astute as we audience members are, we really don’t need the modern-day analogs to be burned into our brains. Mark Cuddy’s contemporary translation is only heightened, highlighted, underscored and spotlighted by director Todd Salovey, who has a field day with all manner of updated shtick and shenanigans. Sometimes things go a bit too far; I accepted the wink-wink, nudge-nudge mentions of social security and HMOs, but I could’ve done without the gargantuan breast implants, the doctor with the repairman’s butt-crack and the Michael Jackson moonwalk, music and moves. But the dreamlike balletic interludes by Gina Angelique’s Eveoke Dance Theatre are beautifully executed — witty, sexy and true to Molière’s original concept of comédie-ballets. The rest is inspired insanity.
If you like subtlety, stay at home. The production palette is garishly eye-popping. There’s a row of sinks on a chartreuse floor, and a flushing toilet behind a nearby scrim. True to ancient and modern comedic form, the physical comedy is fantastic: fumblings and stumblings and pratfalls galore, all impeccably paced and timed. The cast is terrific, with exceptional performances by Carla Harting as a spunky and agile, brassy/sassy maid; Julie Jacobs as a wild-haired young lover; little Kamrie Littlefield, who throws herself on the floor just like Julie Jacobs; Sean Murray as a slimy, mustachioed Cluseau of a lawyer (and later, much less funny, but hysterically attired, as a foppish, pontificating voice of reason) and of course, the gut-busting Ron Campbell, the hypochondriac of the title.
Here’s a man who’d rather have an enema than a friend, who’ll insist that his daughter marry a doctor (just so he’ll get perpetual care), whose wife and physicians are after his bucks, but he’s just obsessed with his buttocks…. Rectum? Damned near killed ‘im. Actually, the role was a killer for Molière. The actor/playwright, at age 51, assumed the part of The Imaginary Invalid in this, his final comedy, and during the performance, was seized with a coughing fit and died later that night.
Now, nobody dies in the hilarious farce, “Noises Off,” but someone almost got hurt on opening night. Onstage at Moonlight Amphitheatre’s Avo Playhouse, there’s a huge flight of stairs flanked by eight doors and a window. The hair-trigger timing of comings and goings, entrances and exits, door-slamming, pants-dropping and sardine spilling, is cause for hysteria, if not whiplash, in the audience, let alone downright danger for the cast. But this cracker-jack crew can handle it.
The first act gets off to a rocky start, but then it’s full steam ahead, and a full head of steam. Kathy Brombacher keeps the pace appropriately frantic and frenetic. There’s one brilliant ax-wielding bit that was razor-sharp and sidesplitting. The influence of Molière is everywhere; history, as I said, repeats itself, just like the one scene we watch three times in this 1982 play-within-a-play. The piece follows a third-rate, backwoods British traveling theater company from a not-ready-for-prime-time dress rehearsal, through two haggard months into the tour of a dreadfully fishy comedy, “Nothing On.” The farce onstage is only surpassed by the comic antics backstage, complete with rage, jealousy, inebriation, misinterpretation, misconduct and missed cues. While the French master made medics the butt of his humor, the Englishman exposes the asininity of actors. A double shot of comedy: Bottoms up!
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.