If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
A Knock-About Moliere at Yale Rep
So you expected a traditional production of Moliere at Yale Rep? C’mon! Surely you recall what the theatre did with Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” last season? Well, the same crew that reinvented (some would say desecrated) that comic masterwork, are back with a knock-about commedia dell’arte take on Moliere’s “A Doctor In Spite of Himself”. You’ll forgive me to admit that while it may only have a passing resemblance to Moliere, I still laughed myself silly at Yale.
Freely adapted (and how!) by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp and directed by Mr. Bayes with Mr. Epp in the leading role, Yale Rep’s “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” sets the tone early on when the theatre’s ushers work the audience into a pre-show frenzy singing along with Harry Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut”. After that, it’s pretty much all up for grabs as the adapters stick to the basic outline of Moliere by introducing Sganarelle (Mr. Epp, a clown of the highest order), the luckless, henpecked husband to the shrewish Martine (a floppy-breasted Justine Williams). Impersonated by puppets in the show’s opening -- a clever device that becomes a continually funny running gag throughout the play -- the actors then take over as overgrown Punch and Judy dolls.
The punches and insults fly and soon Sganarelle has been mistaken for a doctor by Valere and Lucas, a pair of lackeys who work for the wealthy Geronte. Geronte is in desperate need of a physician who will cure his daughter, the seemingly mute Lucinde. Lucinde, meanwhile, is faking her affliction until her father agrees to her choice of mate, the love-struck and loquacious Leandre. Or something like that. I’m not really sure because the plot is beside the point in this production. At about the half-way mark, Mr. Epp turns and asks the audience, “When does the play begin?” Moliere purists may be asking the same thing, but the audience in attendance with me could hardly give a damn. The laughter was continuous and, at a briskly paced 90 minutes, this “Doctor” may be just the cure for those pre-wintertime blahs.
Broad physical comedy, rude and vulgar jokes, sophomoric humor, contemporary references (including a shout-out to the Occupy Wall Street crowd) -- no idea is too silly, no joke too low in the hands of Bayes and Epp. And they have a game, adventurous company of actors at their disposal who are more than willing to drink the Kool-Aid. Chief among these is Allen Gilmore, who plays the huge-bellied Geronte with a kind of baffled joy, Jacob Ming Trent and Liam Craig as his Laurel and Hardy-type stooges and a very amusing Julie Briskman, changing accents at the speed of lightning, as his wise-cracking maid. Special mention must also go to Renata Friedman who plays the mute Lucinde and does brilliant work as the puppeteer.
Composer and music director Aaron Halva adds lively incidental music throughout and his two-man, onstage band (Greg C. Powers and Robertson Witmer) offer invaluable support and cheer to the ongoing nonsense. Kristin Fiebig’s endlessly creative costuming are jokes within jokes and the scenic design by Matt Saunders and lighting by Yi Zhao provides its own special magic. Indeed, the final moments of this production cast a spell over the proceedings with some breathless theatrical images that I don’t want to spoil by revealing here. Is it Moliere? Not really. But then it doesn’t really pretend to be, either!
“A Doctor In Spite of Himself” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through Saturday, December 17. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at: 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.