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A Touch of Modernity?: Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within

 Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father's choice of mates in "The Imaginary Invalid" at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father’s choice of mates in “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The thing about classic theatrical works is that sometimes they fall prey to the modern suspicion that anything said in old and/or artful language loses its ability to connect with a contemporary audience. One could argue that this is short-sighted and looks down on the audience’s ability to stretch intellectually. On the other hand, remembering that these plays were originally speaking to people in their own time, perhaps updating the language of a work can add back the freshness it had when new.

As someone who grew up surrounded by people who appreciated Shakespeare, I admit to an abiding suspicion of updating done for its own sake. Thus, I approached the production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within with a certain amount of skepticism. The production of this 343-year-old play uses a 9-year-old adaptation by Constance Congdon based on a translation by Dan Smith, and adaptation – often rather fanciful – it is.

Still, what is lost in the artfulness of some of Moliere’s poetic style (even in translation), is gained back again by focusing on the spirit of the piece as a send-up of both severe hypochondriasis and the bamboozling nature of the medical quack. In this it succeeds with all the silliness and elaborate double entendre that one could ask for.

The tale, as with other of Moliere’s best work, seems remarkably timeless, and very silly. Argan is a wealthy man obsessed with his own ostensibly failing health. To save himself money, he has decided that his daughter will marry the nephew of his doctor – also recently become a doctor – so there will be medical help in the house at all times. Meanwhile, his much younger wife plots to absorb all her husband’s money and avoid paying the dowry required in a marriage by sending his daughter, her step-daughter, to a convent. The daughter, Angelique, having fallen madly for a young man she met at the theater, is appalled at her father’s marriage arrangements for her. The wise servant Toinette observes all of this, and works to wise up Argan, and sort things out in Antoinette’s favor.

Artistic co-director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has given this piece a nice balance between the cartoonish and the historical, though there are still a few oddities for which ANW productions of antique comedies are known. The play has been developed as a combination of French farce, with the elaborate timing of comings and goings which enhance the comedy, and an old fashioned melodrama complete with sound cues to announce the villain. It works fairly well, filled with silliness and innuendo, and performed as it is by a fine ensemble.

Apollo Dukakis has a lovely time as the jaw-droopingly self-absorbed Argan, delighting in his supposed knowledge of his own mostly fanciful ailments. Deborah Strang shines once again as the practical and often annoyed Toinette, providing a solidity which balances Argan’s flightiness. Kelsey Carthew makes Angelique impressively air headed, even as she decries her status as a pawn in the hands of her elders. Carolyn Ratteray gives Argan’s wife a delightfully comical aversion to her husband, and enough personal villainy to fit the melodramatic plot.

Jeremy Rabb makes Argan’s doctor richly pompous and amazingly agile at spouting multi-syllable words for conditions that don’t exist. Rafael Goldstein provides an appallingly, comically awful potential husband for Antoinette as the doctor’s nephew. As contrast, Josh Odsess-Rubin creates a gentle earnestness in Cleante, the man Antoinette actually loves, making her choice all the more obvious. As two rather slimy characters after their own segment of Argan’s money, Freddy Douglas not only makes each broadly different from the other, but impressively memorable as well.

The scenic design by Angela Balogh Calin make good use of the basic communal pieces shared by other plays in ANW’s fall repertory, while her costume designs range from subtle to florid as the character demands. Rodriguez-Elliot’s wildly elaborate ending, including a costume made from a parachute, seems almost over-much for what is generally a more intimate if silly adventure, but by and large this comedy is worth seeing for many reasons.

In the end, the themes of desire, skulduggery and gullibility, not to mention the sensible observational nature of the servant class, are all Moliere. That we readily accept the idea that a doctor would make up illnesses to keep himself employed by a hypochondriac proves how thoroughly the concept has echoes in modern, pharmaceutically swollen times. “The Imaginary Invalid” plays in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and Jean Genet’s “The Maids”.

What: “The Imaginary Invalid” When: Through November 19; 8 p.m. October 29, November 4 and 18; 7:30 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7 p.m. October 23 and November 13; 2 p.m. October 23 and 29, November 13 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Moliere at A Noise Within: It may be Baroque, but don’t ” fix” it

Geoff Elliott and Freddy Douglas as Orgon and the felonious Tartuffe, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Geoff Elliott and Freddy Douglas as Orgon and the felonious Tartuffe, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a particular challenge to producing a classic comedy for a modern audience. By “classic” I do not mean vintage Neil Simon, but the comedies of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Moliere and others of considerable vintage. The first challenge is to acknowledge that they are, and can continue to be, funny. The second is to find a way to bring that humor to an audience using the play itself, rather than assuming the observers will not “get” or will be bored by the original script.

This is the challenge in A Noise Within’s production of Moliere’s spot-on send-up of fraudent piety, “Tartuffe.” A solid translation by Richard Wilbur supplies the base. For the most part, Julia Rodriguez-Eliott’s direction gives the respect, and a proficient company makes the antique language and situation glow with recognizable flair.

Almost. The production trips up at the very end, simply because the director either does not trust the intelligence of her audience, or believe in the subtle humor a modern company can create from a historic, tongue-in-cheek, obsequious speech. The shift is so sudden and so glaring it leaves one resentful, rather than glowing with the humor of what is otherwise a splendid production.

Central to the success of this show is Tartuffe himself. Freddy Douglass makes the flim-flam artist masquerading as an ascetic religious zealot so grating, with such an underscore of sly malace it is easy for the audience to join in the instant dislike most of the onstage characters feel. This balances will against Geoff Elliott’s blindly devoted Orgon. It’s standard Elliott, but here that works well (though one wonders why the not-so-subtle, anachronistic addition of bat-wing glasses is needed to indicate his blindness).

The rest of the cast proves equally strong. Among the standouts, Alison Elliott makes fine work of Orgon’s daughter, fighting for her own love life as her father angles her toward the religious con man. Rafael Goldstein makes her original intended just enough of a milquetoast to push the girl to fight her own battle, along with Mark Jacobson as her appalled and frustrated brother. Deborah Strang contributes yet another strong performance as the practical maid who sees the whole thing for the ridiculous situation that it is.

Indeed, it all rolls along with Moliere’s wry and somewhat dark humor at the fore, until we reach the end. Understanding that the play was banned twice, this version contains a flowing speech at the end praising the greatness of the King of France (Louis XV) – probably a necessity to finally get the thing on the stage. It’s reminiscent of a similar speech at the end of one Gilbert and Sullivan opera, to counter Queen Victoria’s lack of amusement at a previous satire.

Instead of letting the rather overblown (and thus satiric) statements roll as their own comedy, the whole thing suddenly becomes a burlesque skit – out of context and out of character. It’s jarring, and doesn’t let the silliness of the “deus ex machina” ending ride under its own power – a great disappointment.

Still, the majority of the production is splendid. Special nods ot Steven Barr of Trifecta Scenery and to Miriam Dafford and David King, scenic painters responsible – one assumes – for a most intimidating portrait of the title character which appears at a major moment. Angela Balogh Calin’s costume designs cement the sense of period (regardless of the nonsensical glasses).

Indeed, it all works, until it suddenly and spectacularly doesn’t.

“Tartuffe” has a lot to say about how people can – then and now – be bamboozled into a restrictive and destructive sense of religion. It always surprises me how current Moliere’s central statement is. Most of what you would see at A Noise Within would underscore this. All that needs to be added is for the director to trust the audience enough to understand they will “get” comedy without needing to be distracted from the words, or having them disguised.

What: “Tartuffe” When: In repertory through May 24, 8 p.m. March 8, April 13 and 14, May 2 and 24; 7 p.m. March 23, April 20, and May 18; 7:30 p.m. April 10; 2 p.m. March 2 and 23, May 18 and 24 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Moliere At His Best: A Noise Within charms with “The Bungler”

JD Cullum as the devious Mascarille and Michael A. Newcomber as the inept Lelie with the cast of "The Bungler" (photo: Craig Swartz)

Few men have had their finger on the pulse of their own time period like Moliere. He made social comedy into an art form, managing to touch on class issues of his own day while creating characters whose foibles prove so human they are still very accessible today. Still, some of Moliere’s comedies are produced more often than others. There is a particular excitement for those who, like me, have experienced multiple productions of “Tartuffe,” “The Imaginary Invalid,” or “The Misanthrope” to discover there may still be a surprise – an unknown treasure to be unearthed on occasion.

Indeed, I have just found one. After seeing “The Bungler” at A Noise Within, I cannot help wonder why it is not one of the more commonly done of Moliere’s work. Graced with comic plot worthy of Abbott and Costello, the silly elegance of an overdressed era, and that universal sympathy for a cheerful scoundrel, it charms from beginning to end, with more than a few genuine belly laughs along the way.

Much of this is due, of course, to the stellar performances of two individuals. JD Cullum engages at every level as the frustrated valet Mascarille. Wily and devious, Mascarille has been pushed by his master, Lelie, to maneuver the beautiful gypsy woman held in bondage by a neighbor into Lelie’s arms. It would seem a rather standard sort of “cunning servant” play. The difference here is Lelie, played as unflappably vapid by Michael A. Newcomer. Trying to be helpful, Lelie manages to thwart his own interests over and over again, pushing Mascarille into ever more outlandish attempts to achieve his goal.

Both Cullum and Newcomer are brilliant – the one radiating energetic intelligence balanced beautifully the other’s blank-but-earnest placidity. Supporting them is an equally impressive cast.

William Dennis Hunt grounds the story as the penurious owner of Lelie’s obsession. As the obsession, Emily Kosloski provides the kind of porcelain beauty one usually finds on Dresden shepherdesses, and most of what she gets to do is be beautiful. Kate Maher, as the woman Lelie is supposed to marry, settles into an interesting air increasing practicality as the insanity around her becomes more and more transparent, rather than just playing a pawn. Stephen Rockwell makes somewhat bemused work of her father.

Mitchell Edmonds operates with a pleasant cluelessness as Lelie’s somewhat impoverished, but cheerful father. Kevin Stidham’s standard young man makes an attractive alternative for Lelie’s fiance. Rafael Goldstein proves earnestly confidential as Mascarille’s informative friend, and Amin El Gamal radiates a kind of creepy warmth as the mysterious Andres. Kabin Thomas and Claire Marie Mannle round out the cast.

Director, and ANW Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliot has chosen to weave this baroque comedy with aspects of commedia dell’arte, utilizing the masks, music and dance as segues for and punctuation to the production. This general concept of a play within a play makes the thing flow with a lighthearted ease, with just a little aura of the sinister. It all works.

“The Bungler,” in the end, is far from a bungle. It is laugh-out-loud funny, as much due to direction and quality of acting as to Moliere. To be surprised by something around since the time of Louis XIV has its own enjoyment, and is in its way the best proof of the essential artistry of theater, even comic theater, to speak to the human condition. Go if you can. You’ll be glad you did.

What: “The Bungler” When: Through May 27 in repertory with two other plays, 8 p.m. selected Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

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