By Pat Launer
If you’ve ever had a doctor who didn’t deliver, you’ll delight in how “The Imaginary Invalid” excoriates the profession. If you happen to be a doctor, well… you may just have to grin and bear it. And in spite of yourself, grin you will. Maybe even guffaw.
When Fiasco Theater gets going, they could make the phonebook sidesplitting — and melodious. The small but mighty (and mighty talented) New York-based ensemble theatre is making its second guest appearance at The Old Globe. Three years ago, they brought us their delicious deconstruction of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
Now they’re back, with a commissioned piece, their version of Molière’s 1673 masterwork. The play, the great French master’s finale (literally; he actually collapsed onstage playing the title role and died shortly thereafter) is obviously ripe for revisiting and revision.
Last year, San Diego Rep resident playwright Herbert Siguenza (a founding member of the Chicano comedy troupe, Culture Clash), created “Manifest Destinitis,” a rowdy romp re-set in mid-19th century California.
So, it was natural to expect a complete re-conception of the three-act farce by the Fiasco folks.
Surprisingly, in this world premiere, they remain pretty faithful to the original. But the times when they add their own distinctive brand of music (a capella madrigals; multiple instruments) and mayhem (very funny, dexterous physical comedy and terrific in-the-moment ad libs) the show really sings.
They’ve restored the musical interludes (though not the ballets) Molière initially included. And those are some of the best parts of this comical but fairly traditional rendering.
At the center of the story is Argan, an inveterate hypochondriac, a wealthy but stingy bloviator kvetch-in-chief, who surrounds himself with money-grubbing medical sycophants more than willing to supply him with endless potions and purgatives.
He has a scheming, gold-digging second wife and a devoted daughter who’s fallen hard for a young man she met six days ago and is desperate to wed.
But Argan has other plans; he wants her to marry a doctor, so he will have perpetual care. The match he makes is really for him, and the target is something of a buffoonish blowhard. The adorably astute maid, Toinette, conspiring with Argan’s more level-headed brother, saves the day and restores sanity to the household.
In this version, the language is modern (“based from translations by Henri van Laun and Charles Heron Wall”), and the timely notion of a rigid, dictatorial master whose self-involvement and narrow-mindedness adversely affect everyone around him, is not concealed by the frenzy of antics.
The co-directors (also co-founders of the company), spotlight all the talents of their troupe — and have graciously added a local actor to the mix. Kevin Hafso-Koppman, a recent graduate of the Old Globe/USD MFA program, is a malleable actor and impressive singer/guitarist/mandolinist; he does a wonderful job in the dual roles of the ardent young lover and the stubbornly wrong-headed apothecary.
The directors also appear in the production: Jessie Austrian is deliciously wicked as Argan’s avaricious, materialistic wife (with her blingy hot-pink shoes), and Noah Brody plays two of the more nefarious doctors, to excellent comic effect.
Andy Grotelueschen is aptly irascible as Argan, who has a penchant for the paddle (one of the recipients of his whacks is more than happy to receive them). Ultimately, he gets his own thrashing comeuppance.
Jane Pfitsch, who proves outstanding on violin and trumpet (an uncommon combo!), is charming as the daughter, Angélique, her modest powder-blue dress offset by alluring, lipstick red pumps.
But it’s Emily Young as Toinette who nearly steals the show, with her sly wit, comic asides, agile physicality — and her own personal coup de théâtre, leaving one side of the White Theatre’s arena stage as the maid, and almost immediately, appearing from the other side, in completely different garb and character. Funny stuff.
As one might expect, there are supremely silly moments (even silly dancing at the end; all the music composed by Fiasco co-artistic director Ben Steinfeld), but with the support of the Old Globe’s resources — lavish costumes, lighting and sound — everything has a polished, practiced look. I kind of missed their last elaborate production, with its bare-bones, seat-of-the-pants feel and its sense of antic spontaneity.
Still, with its unique flourishes and flair, Fiasco has surely given us an entertaining and amusing “Invalid.”
- “The Imaginary Invalid” runs through July 7 in The Old Globe’s White Theatre in Balboa Park
- Performances are Tuesday-Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- There will be an additional matinee on Wednesday June 14 at 2 p.m. and no matinee on Saturday June 17
- Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.
- Tickets (starting at $29) are at 619-23-GLOBE (234-5623) or TheOldGlobe.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.