PILLS AND POPCORN
By Philip Pearce
If “classical” suggests to you that Molière (née Jean Baptiste De Poquelin) wrote seventeenth century drawing room comedies full of French champagne and sparkling Gallic mots, think again. Molière characters interact with all the subtlety of opposing fans at a pre-game hatchback party and PacRep pulls out all the stops in a rowdy modern adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid.
Using an updated script by Constance Congdon, director Kenneth Kellaher sets the story in a flashy late 20th or early 21st century Paris apartment with a commanding view of the Eiffel Tower. Just outside the picture window is a ledge which the characters later threaten to avail when the plot pushes them to suicidal heights, which happens quite a lot.
We are catapulted into the action with an opening musical number called Quack! in which the actors make like ducks and alert us to the fact that tonight’s laughs are going to be aimed mainly at phony doctors and the hypochondriacs who patronize them. If this seems a bit over-the-top, bear in mind that Molière’s theater regularly halted the action with songs and dances of the day. The Congdon script continues the tradition with disco dance interludes, songs and lyrics that establish characters and underline jokes that point ahead to what’s about to happen.
Central to the whole scuffle is Argan, an aging hypochondriac, his shelves lined with pills, his pockets crammed with prescriptions. Gary S. Martinez is a wonder to watch in the role, eyes rolling heavenward, knees squeezing together in spasms of improvised pain. His obsession with his bodily functions includes a lot of extended on-stage flatulence, which he assesses with the sniffy hauteur of a sommelier describing the contrasting bouquets of various rare vintages.
The rest of the cast keeps right up with him. Blonde and slinky Jennifer LeBlanc instantly negotiates her emotional shifts, from overt blandishment to covert avarice, in an energetic portrayal of Argan’s glossy token second wife Beline. Director Kelleher neatly underscores their relationship by LeBlanc’s split-second evasions each time Martinez lunges lustfully at her across a couch.
The lord and master’s medical idée fixe soon sabotages a budding romance between his daughter Angelique, acted with bubble-headed intensity by Katie Rose Krueger, and her guitar-wielding suitor Cléante, played by the bright and resourceful Sam Fife. Forget the guitar, Argan won’t for one moment consider any son-in-law who isn’t a doctor, or at very least a medical student, and that means the family Doctor Pergeon’s doltish nephew Claude de Aria (whose name does indeed, as we soon discover, sound very much like “diarrhea.”)
This portion of the Congdon adaptation skims over the improbability of a determined contemporary female having to fret, unlike her more restricted seventeenth century counterpart, over a parent’s permission to marry. Anachronism? Who cares when we can watch the desperate pre-nuptial strategies of Steve Slack as Pergeon and hilarious Todd Pivetti as the ludicrously inept de Aria? (Pivetti returns later to do a second creditably funny turn in the role of a German pharmacist.)
All that said, the central pleasure of this production is what has happens to the key role of the household servant Toinette. Contemptuous of her whiny boss, staunchly loyal to the young lovers, she is the one character with brains and judgment enough to untangle all those messy plot strands and bring the play to an end. In other versions I’ve seen, she is portrayed as a busty, spike-heeled “French maid,” swinging her frilly apron and winking beneath her frilly servant’s cap. However, frilly French parlor maids moved quietly off into the wings in about 1935, so PacRep (do I credit Congdon or Kelleher or both?) dresses the superb and sardonic Julie Hughett in the dowdy working gear of a floor mopping drudge, her unkempt nest of wispy gray hair perched above the fastest brain and sharpest tongue in Paris. It’s a brilliant concept, with perfect casting, that reaches its high point when this quick-witted char lady is forced to play two different characters of opposite genders conversing with each other at the same time in full view of the audience. How it‘s done has to be seen to be believed.
Start to finish, The Imaginary Invalid is loud and funny and brief enough to avoid possible noise and other sensory overloads. You’re headed home in just over two hours, including a fifteen minute intermission.
The farce continues at the Circle Theater of the Golden Bough Theatre weekends till September 29th.