Sunday, June 11, 2017

“Imaginary Invalid,” a Fiasco Theatre Moment of Sheer Delight.

Being sick is no laughing matter. Making yourself sick is another story. Believing what you tell yourself about the nature of your illness is well…an illness in itself, but don’t let Argon, Molière’s chief protagonist in his "Imaginary Invalid",  in on the secret.

With health care, Obama Care, Trump Care, single payer plan, no plan, and existing conditions all on the tongues of the national conversation, what better play than Molière’s “The Imaginary Invalid” could The Fiasco Players have chosen as the Globe’s current comedy to mount on the Sheryl and Harvey White Stage through July 2nd?

Andy Grotelueschen, Jessie Austrian and Emily Young 
Argon’s obsession with his imaginary illnesses keeps the quacks, apothecaries and doctor’s pockets lined in gold for treating him for however long they can convince him that he needs them and agreeing with him on whatever he imagines his ailments are.

He keeps track how many enemas’ he’s had and how much he’s being charged, how many times his pulse is being taken and how firm his private parts are. He’s poked, probed into and examined ad nauseam. His concern about how much these visits are costing him almost outweigh any rational for his delusionary fix.   

In order to keep his parade of doctors off his personal payroll and save his fortune he insists that his daughter, Angélique marry the just out of school Dr. Thomas Diafoirus the socially repressed and rather obnoxious younger son of the senior Dr. Diafiorus, one of Argan’s physicians, so he won’t have to keep paying doctor bills.

Kevin Hafso-Koppman Noah Brody and Jane Pfitch
It would never occur to him that she would not be down with the plan. She is in love with the young and talented musician Cléante (Kevin Hafso-Koppman). This matters not to Argan and his second wife, Béline (Jessie Austrian).

Their word is final, until it’s not. Or until Tointte (Emily Young) their maid gets involved, very involved in the undoing of any plans either might have.   

Béline is more interested in Argon’s pocketbook than anything else. She pulls off a good charade by convincing Argon to send his daughter, her stepdaughter away from home and most likely his fortune. Either Angélique marries her fathers' choice or she’s off to the nunnery.

Throughout a conspiracy of ideas, people, doctors and lovers fills the stage with conflicting ideas, antics and solutions a la commedia del arte something Fiasco Theatre knows all too well.

“The Imaginary Invalid” was Molière’s the last play in which he acted. He and his wife, La Molière, played the two principals, Argan and Angélique. It was produced in France in 1673 and is just as funny and as hard hitting at hypochondriacs and the business of doctoring then as it is today.

Unfortunately, Molière was most convincing as he played out his suffering burlesque of sickness and satire only to succumb to tuberculosis at age fifty-one, after only three performances.

From L to R. Fiasco Theatre's cast: Andy Groteluechan, Jane Pfitch, Noah Brody, Kevin Hafso-Koppman, Emily Young and Paul L. Coffey
One wonders if it’s Molière’s masterpiece that draws attention, even though it’s fun, funny, relevant, oft times slapstick and delicious, or that Fiasco Theatre deserves a second look with a more appreciative eye especially by yours truly.

Some might recall Fiasco Theatre Company’s bare bones production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into The Woods” in 2014. It was a stripped down, reimaging revision that, looking back, was not to this reviewers taste.

Now they are back at the request of artistic director Barry Edelstein with a world premiere commissioned piece that takes Molière’s ‘Invalid’ to the max.

Without too many diversions from the original text, but with some excellent fellowship and showmanship this production hums with flawless acting, music, and song and dance. 

With a variety of instruments, musical interludes are performed with violin, cello, guitar, tambourine, kazoo and a brief trumpet selection played by Jane Pfitsch. Excellent ensemble work and point on comic timing all highlight the versatility and reputation of this much -praised group.

Fiasco Theatre founders Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody direct the production with a sure hand. Ben Steinfeld, who is musical director created the original music for the show, and yes they also sing. 

All are graduates of Brown University in Providence, R.I. / Trinity Repertory Company MFA program in acting and are still hanging together to form an ensemble company worthy of high praises.

 The sum of the parts is what makes the total of this ensemble so awesome and flawless. Andy Grotelueschen’s Argon is the perfect foil for just about everyone in his orbit. He blunders, stumbles, roars and dictates to his, oft times ignoring household. He’s a marvel at the business of being sick.

Emily Young plays Toinette with gusto and timing not seen since the fast change artists in say, “29 Steps”. Her quick character change from maid to alt doctor almost defies what we see as she jettisons back and forth between characters on opposite sides of the house.

The same can be said about Noah Brody and Paul L. Coffey each playing dual or in Coffey three roles,  (Argon’s brother Béralde, the senior Dr. Diafiorus and Mister Purgon, another physician. He also excels at the cello.

Local actor Kevin Hafso-Koppman has the luck of the draw as the talented musician (he plays several instruments including guitar, and mandolin) Cléante who woos Angélique, a stunning, funny and impressive trumpet and violin playing Jane Pfitch.

Hafso-Koppman’s timing fits in well with the company’s own level comic timing as he presents himself as the swooning lover to Angélique’s overly yet cautious love for this outsider.

Andy Grotelueschen and Jane Pfitch
Janet Pfitch and Jessie Austrian are ideal in the roles of stepmother and stepdaughter; one a conniving money grubber after her husband’s fortune, the other an obedient daughter willing to give up her worldly goods and love interest to accommodate her father’s wishes. Both shine in their competing roles.

Emily Rebholz designed the perfect outfits for each personality. I especially couldn’t help but stare at Ms., Austrian’s very pink shoes glittering with rhinestones. They define her character to a T especially during Argan’s nightmare/dream.  

Melanie Chen’s sound design works well in the more intimate round space. Takeshi Kata’s simple set provides for a few surprises, and works fine in the round as well and Russell H. Champa’s spot on lighting design.

Last year Culture Clash’s Herbert Siguenza penned a new play, “Manifest Destinitis” based on Moliere’s 17th century “Imaginary Invalid”, tweaking it a bit and centering the action in the 1800’s Mexico.

It was a hoot and a howl with Siguenza as Toinett. It also brought with it an entire political sandstorm of the raping of the country to our south.

It appears there is no end in sight for Moliere’s play, in any form; to be entertaining audiences whether set in 17th century France, 19th century Mexico or, who knows?

Both visions bring out an over the top humor and slightly skewered conversation about doctors in particular and medicine in general that in reflection resembles much of what’s happening today, imagined or in real time.   

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 2nd
Organization:  The Old Globe Theatre
Phone: 619.234.5623
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Ticket Prices: Start at $29.00
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre

Photo: Jim Cox


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