STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
“They will be the death of me yet.”
Ardin, the rich hypochondriac at the center of Molière’s comedy “The Imaginary Invalid,” isn’t referring to his doctors. He’s muttering about his children.
The aging misanthrope has a million itches, aches and spasms, but it’s his two daughters who give him real pain. He wants Angelique, the eldest, to marry a medical student. What better way to have a son-in-law and doctor in the house 24/7?
Angelique wants nothing to do with Thomas the twit; it may be off to the convent for her. Louise, the younger sibling, isn’t a prize, either. What to do?
Take a baby aspirin, consult with more doctors, set a series of tests for familial loyalty and come up with a happy ending.
That’s basically what happens in Molière’s satire. He aimed his 17th-century quill at both the medical profession and family life.
The Fort Lewis College theatre department has stitched together a visually striking production, but the final dress rehearsal Wednesday night was not quite performance ready. That’s the danger in writing for a Friday deadline. Uneven and stilted, the rehearsal didn’t coalesce until late in the second act. That can be fixed. Perhaps it will by opening night.
Credit guest director Rima Miller for introducing the students to the tricky business of Commedia dell’Arte. The late 16th-century style of broad physical comedy using stock characters emphasized free improvisation. All of that will be seen in this FLC production. Miller has augmented the text with other comedic gestures – everything from slapstick to highly stylized movement. She’s also done some creative casting, toying with gender reversals in several major characters.
Ardin, the cranky title role, usually is played by a male character actor. Here, a diminutive Mary Quinn tackles, tumbles and skips through the role, shouting all the way in her fake white beard and fat suit. Jessica Fairchild brings Ardin’s brother, Beralde, to life, the only sane member of the family. Bewigged like a dashing Louis XIV, Fairchild convincingly balances Ardin’s histrionics with the voice of reason.
Jelani Perkins creates a visually surprising Lady Beline, Ardin’s trophy wife. It’s a casting coup and a Snowdown kind of moment. Perkins is a big guy. When he enters dressed in an elegant gold silk gown, high wig and very red lipstick, can a faux lady’s gold digging be far behind? In addition, every time Beline enters, the vamp gets soul-sister music, another sign that anything goes.
You’ll also hear recorded classical clips by Vivaldi and Rossini. The live Musicians of Awesomeness augment sound effects up to and including Ardin’s periodic passing of the gas. This is farce, folks.
With a simple but elegant set designed by Jeffery Eisenmann and whimsical costumes by the inimitable Jane Gould, the technical side brims with color and invention. Four pieces of bone-white furniture create the illusion of an elegant, if spare, boudoir. Instead of a bevy of doors, usually required for farce, Eisenmann has dropped eight huge brocade panels from the ceiling. Actors slide in and out of these, and there’s a chase scene to the William Tell Overture involving Ardin and his maid, Toinette (wonderfully played by Erin O’Connor).
From an opening aisle entrance by the stage band to an elaborate series of tableaux at curtain, director Miller uses the entire theater as a playing space.
That said, Molière’s masterpiece is a stretch for FLC students. A certain stiffness marked dress rehearsal, giving the play an awkward start-and-stop quality. Long pauses cut into any sense of rhythm. Vocal projection seemed wildly uneven. Ardin’s persistent shouting underscored the character’s age and crankiness but contrasted too starkly with Toinette’s more nuanced delivery and most dramatically to Lady Beline’s all but inaudible whispers. At final dress, the ensemble just didn’t coalesce. Late in Act II, Toinette’s complex doctoring scene found a natural rhythm and demonstrated that the Molière challenge wasn’t entirely beyond the students’ grasp.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.