Friday, Jun 23, 2017

The Imaginary Invalid (2011)

The Imaginary Invalid has a hell of a pedigree to live up to. The play, originally by Moliere, has been adapted for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year by Oded Gross and Tracy Young, the same pair that adpated Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters in 2009. Likewise the play is directed by Tracy Young, as in ’09. And as the director points out in the program notes, she has drawn heavily on her own expertise (once again) in commedia dell’arte to guide this production. With so many similarities, and with Servant being such a fond memory for this reviewer, the question becomes inescapable: is Invalid just as good?

To answer, I must crib from another ’09 production and “equivocate” just a bit (ha ha ho ho, I am a wit…): yes and no. Moliere’s original work has far more of a point to it than Goldoni’s does, and likewise this adaptation finds itself more grounded, perhaps more nuanced… which is a fine quality in and of itself but not exactly in sync with the farcical tone that permeates the show for most of its duration.

I’ll get back to the comparison later. In and of itself, The Imaginary Invalid has a lot going for it. Moving the period of the play from Moliere’s day to the 1960s has clearly inspired Christopher Acebo, pulling double duty this go-’round as Scenic AND Costume Designer. The set is particularly striking, with plenty of mod touches for you to peruse during intermission or to pass an early arrival. The costumes were just perfect, setting the time without slavish period accuracy, enhancing the overall sense of whimsy that the production has going for it. Lighting, by Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu, is mostly standard with the exception of a cute running joke about incompetent sign language – here the joke is significantly highlighted by well-timed isolating spotlight/darkness contrast. I’m certain there’s a technical term for this, and I’m certain I don’t know it. Readers? Help me out here.

Now then: the cast. (This is theater, after all, there must’ve been acting.) I have to begin by thanking the heavens for K. T. Vogt. Her one other star turn at OSF, as Ethel Toffelmier in The Music Man, was fine but buried in a mediocre production (I know I know… it’s been 2 years, drop the tomatoes already), but here she absolutely owns the lead role of Toinette. She’s funny, she’s charming, she sings, she sighs, she is great. God bless Tracy Young for not feeling like the role had to go to some winsome ingenue to keep our attention – K. T. is just divine. (Although, she hits a punchline and nods at the audience liiiiiike 3 times too much. It’s cute, but “too too.”) Our other lead, David Kelly as Argan, also delivers his usual fine, funny performance. As the titular Invalid he carries the heart of the show around with him in his wheelchair, usually to great effect, but he’s also saddled with a couple of moments that I most fault the show for – could he be more to blame than the adaptation itself, botching the delivery somehow? I don’t think so, but in the moment you’re likely to hold it against him. Hold fast! He’s doing what he can. Relative newcomer to the company Kimbre Lancaster stands out as Angelique, as does Festival stalwart Jeffrey King as Argan’s brother Beef Manheart; at least, I assume that’s how “Beralde” translates from the French.

So, in a funny production with swingin’ music (guided skillfully once again by Paul James Prendergast) and a general feeling of panache, why aren’t I absolutely 100% raving? Two reasons: the end of the 1st half and the end of the 2nd half. The first half ends with a sudden bout of real anger and emotion, which marks the first time that the play shows any anger or nuanced emotion. As for the finale… as I walked out of the premiere I heard a very highly placed member of the Festival (who wasn’t speaking to me, and thus shall remain nameless) say to his/her companions that the ending “was a very brave choice.” Yeeeeeaaah, ok; maybe. But you know how the Light Brigade is heralded for bravery but they all knew they were going to die and maybe somebody should have said something? Same dif. It’s not that the end is absurd – actually once it’s revealed you can see that it informs a couple of earlier scenes with added poignancy. It’s just that it’s so tonally off from the rest of the production. There’s nothing in the show that makes you think something like this could happen, and while the creative team here may be thinking “we want to avoid being formulaic!” my response is two-fold. One: you based the production on a 500 year old Italian theatre form known for trading in formula! And two: whatever you think you accomplished by bucking convention, it felt like seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream only to have the two pairs of lovers say “enh, this is stupid” and set up match.com profiles instead of getting married. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a ton of fun to be had – I really, really, enjoyed 90%+ of the show. It was just a shame that the last thing you learn, and thus the first bit of conversation you’re likely to have about the play, is a great big lump of “huh?”