Theatricum Botanicum legend Ellen Geer follows her 2014 Queen Lear with another gender-bending star turn, this time as Molière’s Malade Imaginaire, aka The Imaginary Invalid, Constance Congdon’s 21st-century adaptation turning a three-and-a-half-century-old farce into a playfully raunchy laughfest that would do Mel Brooks proud.
A comic opera-style prelude clues us in from the get-go that this will not be your great-great-great-great grandfather’s Molière, not with lyrics like “If it ducks, then it’s a quack,” the first reference to the “medical professionals” whose solution to hypochondriacal Argan’s multitude of ills is enema after enema after enema.
No wonder then that Brooks’ Blazing Saddles flatulence-spiced campfire scene meets its match in the succession of comic farts (kudos to sound designer Marshall McDaniel) that inspire Queen Geer’s delicious extended opening monolog, one that has Imaginary Invalid Argan plotting to have her nubile daughter Angélique (Willow Geer) marry the family physician’s medical student son, the better to have an MD forever by Mama’s side.
Ginger-haired Angélique is more than willing to wed, but only if her future husband is to be Cléante (Max Lawrence), the tall, dark, and handsome gent with whom she has recently fallen head over heels.
Fortunately for the lovestruck young couple, Argan’s faithful servant Toinette (Melora Marshall) has come up with a plan that will allow Angélique and Cléante to meet in private by introducing the latter as her mistress’s daughter’s music teacher, no matter that Cléante is more Barrymore than Ritchie in the pipes department.
Meanwhile, Argan’s sexy boy-toy hubby Béline (Jonathan Blandino) schemes with his notary public lover Bonnefoi (Katherine Griffith) to keep Grandma’s, sorry make that his wife’s fortune in his own greedy little hands.
The arrival of Argan’s quack physician Doctor Purgeon (Alan Blumenfeld) and his strange bird of a nephew Claude (Cameron Rose) completes the cast of characters, or would if Griffith did not return as the equally inept apothecary Fleurant and Marshall’s Toinette did not don Groucho glasses, nose, eyebrows, and mustache to impersonate yet another doctor as part of her ingenious plan to guarantee Angélique’s marriage to the man of her dreams.
While the French have no choice but to watch Molière in 17th-century français (just as modernizing Shakespeare is near heresy in the English-speaking world), adapter Congdon (working from Dan Smith’s translation) can modernize to her heart’s content … and to abundant audience amusement. (My guess is that among Argan’s 1670s ills, restless legs syndrome and fibromyalgia did not figure, nor did Molière ever dream that by turning Dr. Purgeon’s nephew’s family name from Diafoirus to de Aria, it could be rhymed with diarrhea more times than I could possibly count.)
Still, even Congdon herself could not have imagined how her adaptation (which debuted nine years ago at San Francisco’s ACT) could soar to new heights by turning Argan from Monsieur to Madame, not only by giving the divine Geer yet another “role of a lifetime” but in turning Béline from gigolette to gigolo, 20something toy boy to Geer’s septuagenarian cougar.
Blandino, Blumenfeld, Geer (Ellen’s real-life daughter), and Lawrence provide scrumptious comic support; Theatricum treasure Griffith is doubly delicious as notary and apothecary; and Marshall has an absolute field day as the sassy but devoted Toinette, and never more so than in some rapid-fire role-switching from servant to “doctor” to servant to “doctor” again and again and again.
Still, it’s Rose’s inspired human-avian Claude that proves the evening’s most hilariously scene-stealing supporting turn. (If it walks like a bird and squawks like a bird, then it’s Rose’s outlandish Claude taking hysterically comedic flight.)
Director Mary Jo DuPrey shares credit for her cast’s comic brilliance, with costume designer Vicki Conrad’s period finery and some outrageously over-the-top wigs adding to the laughs, as do lighting designer Zachary Moore’s and sound designer McDaniel’s effects, e.g. the thunder and lightning that accompany every mention of Béline’s name. Even properties master Makena Metz scores comedy points for one very special enema, and McDaniel’s original music is another treat.
Lea Madda and Alexandre Wauthier deliver saucy, French-accented preshow announcements, the latter en français impeccable, the former sticking around as Argan’s leggy maid.
Elna Kordijan is stage manager and Sarah Poor is assistant stage manager. Beth Glasner is costume mistress. Daisy Navarro is production assistant
2011’s Tartuffe introduced me for the first time to the rustic gem of a theater that is Theatricum Botanicum. Shakespeare may dominate TB’s Summer Of 2016 with Romeo And Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Titus Andronicus, but for laughs that would do Monty Python proud, it’s Molière’s Imaginary Invalid that will have audiences peeing their pants with laughter and glee.
The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Through October 2. See website for detailed performance schedule. Reservations: 310 455-3723
August 13, 2106
Photos: Miriam Geer