The phrase "17th-century French theater" probably doesn't scream "big fun!" to your average undergraduate, or, frankly, a lot of playgoers. You might imagine stuffy costumes, stilted dialogue and the like.
But in the case of the University Theatre adaptation of Molière's 1673 play The Imaginary Invalid, which is being staged in Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre, you'd be dead wrong. Through design elements and the script itself, UT has revamped Invalid in ways that are funny and offbeat. UT never lets you forget that this is, above all, a comedy.
Much of the credit must go to Arrie Callahan, a Ph.D. student in theater research. Callahan has done her own translation of Molière's original text, making the dialogue more natural for young, contemporary actors and also adding in the occasional timely touch, like a reference to swine flu, without belaboring it.
Costume design (led by Rachel Barnett) has been guided by steampunk style, though that label isn't especially important. It's clear that these costumes are a freewheeling, colorful mix of various eras and pure fantasy. Coupled with a beautifully layered set designed by Sasha Augustine, Invalid is like a Technicolor dream.
The show's title refers to Argan, a wealthy miser who's convinced he's suffering every malady under the sun. While he hates paying for his treatments, he can't get enough of dubious remedies like frequent enemas.
Argan's lovely daughter, Angelique, is of marriageable age, presenting him with a handy solution: marry her off to a young doctor, Thomas, so Argan can get free medical care. Angelique wants none of this, since she's already become infatuated with hunky Cleante.
There's a lot going on here, and much of it is definitely silly: disguises, a wicked stepmother, bathroom humor, wacky Avenue Q-esque puppetry. At times Invalid, directed by Patricia Boyette, is a busy swirl -- but in a good way -- keeping the pace swift and the tone light.
The savviest character is Argan's servant, Toinette, played with spunk and great comic timing by Heidi Hansfield. She's outstanding, as is Charlie Bauer as the hypochondriac. He can move from the depths of (imagined) misery to childlike glee within nanoseconds.
Katherine Biskupic drew laughs as the lovestruck daughter Angelique, who's like an earnest Disney princess clad in magenta and layers of apricot ruffles. Whenever Angelique enters the room, she's accompanied by flute music and does a faux-graceful dance.
There are also some great bits with Thomas Diafoirus (Dylan Muzny) and his father (Peter Bissen) when they come to Argan's Paris home so that the young doctor can meet his would-be bride. Muzny (who, ironically, is double-majoring in immunology and theater) delivers a nerdy tour de force performance as the wooden and socially inept suitor.
There's also a gem of a scene when Fleurant (Andy Ortman), a flashy pharmacist, shows up to administer Argan's enema. As he breaks into a musical number, twirling his glittery enema applicator, it's clear that this production has nothing if not a sense of fun.
University Theatre has tried to draw some parallels, at least in the publicity for this show, between the health care issues in Molière's play and our current crisis. I think it's best to not force those comparisons. The reason people suffer in 2009 is not because quacks are pushing bloodletting and enemas; it's about economics and access to real medical care. Were Molière writing today, his villain might easily be an insurance exec, not a phony doctor.
In her notes in the program, translator Callahan admits "there were many bumps in the road" in staging this adaptation of Molière. But as an audience member, you wouldn't know it. The overall result is rich, imaginative and a lot of fun.