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Imaginary Invalid: Fart instead of art

By Bence Olveczky
Staff Reporter

The Imaginary Invalid

American Repertory Theatre's Loeb Drama Center

64 Brattle Street, Cambridge

547-8300, Tickets $22-$52

Through June 7

Elvis and Frank Sinatra impersonators, Marilyn Monroe look-alike nurses, punk rockers, and rastafaris are accompanied by a copious amount of farting, pooping, and peeing in American Repertory Theatre's forced reinterpretation of Moliere's comedy The Imaginary Invalid.

Written by a dying Moliere in 1673, the play targets the medical profession and its cynical and hypocritical practitioners. The incurable hypochondriac Argan (Will LeBow) is determined to marry off his daughter Angelique (Caroline Hall) to a medical student (Remo Airaldi) to ensure lifelong treatment of all his imagined ailments. But Angelique is appalled by her husband-to-be and his rather peculiar father, Dr. Diafoirus (Thomas Derrah), and joins forces with the maid Toinette (Francine Torres) in persuading Argan to let her marry Cleante (Benjamin Evett), her true love. The two women are finally successful after convincing the hypochondriac father that he can himself become a doctor. Schooling is superfluous, they tell him, since the medical profession is all about bluffing: "Anything you say, they'll believe you."

Director Andrei Belgrader and translator Shelley Berc chose to adapt Moliere's comedy for our times. The result is a rather vulgarized version of the The Imaginary Invalid, where the jokes are on Viagra, HMOs, and alternative medicine. The fundamental problem is that Moliere's criticism of the medical profession is very much outdated. Unlike the 17th century, when medical treatment was itself a health-hazard, today's doctors do a remarkable job in keeping us healthy, making the play's sharp criticism of their practice seem unjustified.

But Moliere's comedy is not only about and against doctors. It is also a loving portrayal of a man who, like his literary predecessor Don Quixote, invents his own reality and is happy as long as his illusory world is upheld.

Romanian born director Andrei Belgrader's idea was to stage the play as if it were a circus show, with clown-like characters inhabiting the circular blue stage. Wearing colorful dresses and oversized clown shoes, the actors stumble across the stage like confounded caricatures caught in a classic play. This clownery manages to bulldoze over all the subtlety and lyricism found in Moliere's original text, leaving us with a cheesy show where cheap jokes provide the light entertainment.

Deconstructing and reassembling classics is not a sin. If done well it can be a remarkable achievement, as Andrei Serban, another of ART's Romanian imports, showed us earlier this year. His reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, while questionable in relation to Shakespeare's original intentions, was a hilarious homage to theater and play-acting. Serban showed that even out-dated plays can make for fresh and invigorating theater if helped by an imaginative director and a strong cast.

Not that there is anything wrong with the cast in The Imaginary Invalid. The actors, all highly professional, are doing their utmost to keep the laughs coming. One of their painstaking efforts is to engage a few innocent members of the audience on stage. The contributions of the perplexed theater-goers adds to the circus-like feel and becomes somewhat of a highlight as it distracts our attention from an already incoherent production. For all its flaws this two hour long production has a lot of clever theatrical effects, but when used to interpret Moliere's classic comedy, these tricks seem misplaced and come across as surprisingly Invalid.