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Get Thee to an Apothecary

Ed Rampell: In addition to ridiculing quackery there is also a strong dose of mockery of the high and mighty - and whether in 17th century monarchical France, when Molière lived and Invalid is set, or in our own time.
Imaginary Invalid

Willow Geer, Max Lawrence (Photo by Miriam Geer)

THE IMAGINARY INVALID: Molière’s Madcap Merriment Amuses, Mocking Medical Madness and More at Amphitheater

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s production of Molière’s 1673 The Imaginary Invalid is as lighthearted as WGTB’s anti-slavery Tom is heavy. But that’s not to say that this saucy, frothy romp is without its own socially serious, searing subtext. In particular, the playwright/ thespian - who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis - took on the medical profession in what was Molière’s final play. In addition to ridiculing quackery there is also a strong dose of mockery of the high and mighty - and whether in 17th century monarchical France, when Molière lived and Invalid is set, or in our own time with its highly stratified class system that rivals French aristocratic despotism, one can never have enough ridiculing of the ruling class.

The venerable Ellen Geer stars as Argan, the upper class title character beset by all sorts of maladies - or is she, as the comedy’s name suggests, a prima donna hyper-hypochondriac of the first degree? (Molière’s spoof is sometimes called The Hypochondriac and in the original, Argan is a male, but in this transgender day and age of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, Ms. Geer has successfully, seamlessly flipped the role.) Among her infinite (real or imagined) ailments is a severe case of flatulence. So in order to defray her medical expenses Argan connives to marry her daughter Angelique (Willow Geer) off to Claude Diafoirus, who is about to graduate from medical school and the nephew of her personal physician, the bewigged Dr. Purgeon (as in PURGE).

Imaginary Invalid

Cameron Rose, Willow Geer, Melora Marshall (Photo by Miriam Geer)

Both are total quacks, and Molière scores salient points as he skewers anti-science dolts, those precursors to today’s climate change deniers. As Purgeon the suspect surgeon, the redoubtable, inestimable Alan Blumenfeld delivers yet another of his endless characterizations, that range from high tragedy to satire. (But seriously, folks, does this astonishing, veteran thesp’s talents know no bounds? Is there any role the protean Mssr. Blumenfeld can’t play? I’ll bet he could convincingly portray Norman Bates’ mummified mother in Hitchcock’s Psycho.)

As Claude, Cameron Rose steals every scene he’s in like a kleptomaniac on a Rodeo Drive shopping spree with Winona Ryder. He is so improbably garbed and coiffed as a sort of 17th century glam rocker off his rocker and clucks about as if he is part chicken (however, his clucking does have a human accent) that methinks Rose’s Claude is among the funniest characterizations this critic has ever seen tread the boards in all of his theater-hopping peregrinations. I am smiling as I scribble this - bravo, Mssr. Rose!

Jonathan Blandino is anything but bland as Beline, a conniving cad who romances (well, from time to time) the much older Argan in order to sponge off her and inherit her loot. The shape shifting Melora Marshall here incarnates Argan’s far gone, much put upon servant Toinette, who spouts clever class conscious dialogue, just as Mozart’s lower class characters did in his operas with edgy anti-aristocratic awareness, such as The Marriage of Figaro.

As the angelic Angelique, lovely Willow Geer delivers one of those performances wherein as a highly trained stage actress (among L.A.’s finest), she can turn on a dime (or centime, as the case may be), modulating her voice, perfectly calibrating her performance. Max Lawrence plays her true love (or lust) Cleante and although it is not commented upon onstage, theirs is an interracial romance. WGTB has always been a trendsetter in terms of nontraditional casting, from gender to ethnic to age conventions and beyond.

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There have been more and more pairings of Blacks and whites in popular culture, from TV’s “Scandal” to the movies “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” and “The Free State of Jones,” plus the upcoming “Loving”, based on the real life interracial marriage that broke miscegenation laws at the Supreme Court that had been imposed by apartheid America. There is much talk about American disunity, but the increasing prevalence of inter-ethnic couples onscreen and onstage may be a sign that love may be prevailing over hate. Especially in works such as “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”, where the white bride and Black groom’s ethnicity is not even commented upon. Indeed, director Jake Szymanski told me that the husband-to-be - Sam Richardson of HBO’s Veep - was not even identified as African American in the script and that he simply cast the best actor for the part.

WGTB’s two-act production of Invalid uses Constance Congdon’s excellent adaptation of Molière’s 1673 comédie-ballet. Marshall McDaniel provides lovely original music accentuating my favorite instrument, the harpsichord. Vicki Conrad’s appropriately florid costuming captures France’s 17th century elan, from a scantily-clad, lingerie-wearing, stereotypically sexy French maid to Claude’s outlandish garb. As attire of the era at LACMA’s current “Reigning Men” fashion show demonstrates, Conrad has a distinctive flair for period apparel. All of Invalid’s inventive, imaginative, madcap merriment is ably orchestrated by the versatile Mary Jo DuPrey, who also directed last year’s drama August: Osage County at WGTB.

Imaginary Invalid

Melora Marshall and Ellen Geer (Photo by Miriam Geer)

Although this reviewer loved Invalid, I am unsure about how age appropriate it is for children. In addition to innumerable jibes about breaking wind and puns on Claude’s last name, Diafoirus (I’ll leave this to your imagination, Dear Reader), the scatological humor is joined by repeat references to sex. The word “intercourse” is repeatedly bandied about with its multiple meanings - and how do you define and explain these witticisms to a child? Given this play’s repeat “immaturity” I imagine it’s left best for mature audiences - but I suppose it’s up to each parent/guardian to determine what that is for their young ‘un. So heads up - thou hast been forewarned, Dear Reader.

At the age of only 51, poor Molière (there is a wonderful 2007 French biopic called Molière, helmed by Laurent Tirard) actually died after performing in The Imaginary Invalid. (In the spirit of the play, one is tempted to say: “Thespian, heal thyself!”) The long standing superstition that green is bad luck for actors to wear is derived from the fact that this was the color Molière wore when he died, following his performance. (Despite collapsing onstage while coughing and hemorrhaging, Molière insisted on completing the comedy, which may also be the origin of the motto: “The show must go on!”) But audiences need not be concerned - the only thing amphitheater-goers have to “worry” about at this show is the possibility of dying laughing.

From 16th century quackery to the vicissitudes of Obama-care, the medical profession and providing (or lack) of healthcare still merits well-aimed barbs and lampoons, which maestro Molière hurls unerringly at his targets like Queequeg throwing harpoons. Just imagine what Molière may have written had he witnessed the absurdity of 2016 America’s health insurance insanity, which more often than not puts profit before people. As that old French saying goes: “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” - “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” But one thing that never changes is that a splendid time is guaranteed to all at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.

The Imaginary Invalid is playing in repertory through Oct. 2 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell