The great French playwright Moliere hated doctors, and more than 300 years after he wrote The Imaginary Invalid, his scathing ridicule of the profession still stings. The Denver Center Theatre Company's new production aims its darts at medicine's present as well as its past, and it hits the mark with a good deal of energy and insight. This new prose translation by Nagle Jackson (who also directs) takes a lot of liberties with the original, but though it's not Moliere as most of us have always loved him, it's still good, nasty fun.
Argan is a hypochondriac, and as the play opens he is paying his medical bills. It's a great bit, since it demonstrates not only his tight-fisted habits but also his self-pitying dependence on quacks. The doctors take his pulse, examine his tongue and then prescribe enemas. The humor is grossly scatalogical, and Jackson delights in teasing the implications every time Argan grabs his tummy and runs from the stage.
Argan's second wife, Beline (the ample Kathleen M. Brady, once again grandly hilarious), is after his money, coyly trying to manipulate him into incarcerating his daughter in a nunnery so she can inherit his fortune. But Angelique (played exquisitely by Patricia Jones) is already in love with the gallant gentleman Cleante, who, naturally, wants to marry her. And Argan has his own plans for the hapless girl--he wants to wed her to a young physician so he can always have a doctor in the family. The young sawbones is a buffoon, utterly unsuitable to court the lovely heiress--but then, all doctors are rapacious scum in Moliere's eyes. Digitalis (played with fervent oafishness and inventive cupidity by Anthony Powell) will take the girl for her money and prestige, no matter how much she loathes him.
Leave it to Uncle Beralde (played with measured wit by William Denis) and the saucy maid Toinette to save the day and find the right solution. Forcing a man to look at the truth always takes a special combination of wisdom and wit in Moliere's plays, and in this case the maid provides most of the wit.
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Randy Moore maintains a natural earnestness as Argan; though it's not a particularly imaginative performance, we can't help but pity him despite his self-deceptions. Jacqueline Antaramian as Toinette tries to take on a trickster persona but fails because she's so self-consciously cute. Since hers is a key role, the whole play is thrown off balance. Mick Regan, Robert Sicular and Archie Smith as the medical establishment are all appropriately egomaniacal and ridiculous, and John Hutton as Beline's lawyer incorporates a giant facial tic into his bluster.
The production is sometimes uneven; there are a lot more titters than guffaws coming from the audience, and some of the jokes seem too thin. However, the pace is often exhilarating, the stage in the Space Theater is used effectively and the costumes are stunning.
Because Jackson updates Moliere's material so much, he does lose some of the grace of the original. But though it takes time to get used to his raunchy, burlesque style, the show is undeniably funny, pointed and relevant. Despite all the advances in medicine since the seventeenth century, faulty ethics, greed and incompetence have hardly been banished from the profession--and doctors are still far too expensive. It may not be Moliere, exactly, but this Invalid is no betrayal, either.