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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All in the Mind

Across the Boards Dept.: Amidst the summerlong festival of music, Bard College also throws in a worthy theaterical production or two. Here’s my review of a significant one from last year.


WERE YOU TO LAUGH hard enough at this production to be-merde yourself, it would only be in keeping with the spirit of the play. Molière’s “Imaginary Invalid,” the valetudinarian Argan (Ethan Phillips), leads us at the top of the show through a monologue in which he details no end of scatological disorder, punctuating the diatribe with a long, silent, lovingly rendered fart.

Peter Dinklage and Ethan Phillips
Photo by Cory Weaver
The temptation to overdo it must have been considerable, but Phillips and director Erica Schmidt found the right confluence of character and delivery to allow the laughs to emerge from the heart of the show. Molière gives plenty of room for stylization and stage business, and the ensemble that tore into this piece must have used up most of that space.

This marked the return of Schmidt and her actor-spouse Peter Dinklage to the Bard stage since their 2008 “Uncle Vanya.” Dinklage’s PR stock since has soared with “Game of Thrones,” but he was every bit the ensemble player in this rollicking farce.

And the ensemble was made up entirely of men, as we learned during the sung prologue that brought out the nine cast members in period undergarments, soon to sport costume designer Andrea Lauer’s true-to-the-spirit suits and gowns. Beyond Commedia dell’arte tradition itself, there was little in the way of camp to this production. In a very short time you forgot that lovesick Angélique was being played by a man, because Preston Sadleir informed the character with a core of truth.

Likewise Zachary Booth’s take on the scheming (and gorgeously costumed) Béline, who is contriving to get Angélique out of the way so that Argan’s fortunes will be solely hers. Béline’s guile showed as an undercurrent of controlled energy, nicely done.

As Argan’s maid, Toinette, Dinklage had the plum role of the Harlequin of the piece, the scheming and ultimately triumphant servant. He raced into his first scene with Joe Besser-like little-boy fuss, and kept up a steady stream of well-delivered wisecracks or, when those weren’t available, eye-rolls and general (and funny) posturing.

There was a sense throughout of both a push to the edge of characterization and an homage to classic character actors. Thus Kevin Cahoon’s wily notary, Bonnefoi, had a Gene Wilder aspect, Damian Young’s M. Darréah suggested Frank Morgan and, as the young, repulsive suitor Thomas Darréah, the brilliant Henry Vick channeled a little Grady Sutton.

And through it all, Phillips kept the madness churning with his skillful shifting from complaints to arrogance to indignation to whatever frailty suited the Molière moment.

Laura Jellinek’s set design placed the action on a platform raised enough to allow a long flight of stairs up and down which the characters – particularly Toinette – stormed, and Dinklage had a field day with a quick-change moment in which Toinette impersonates a pompous physician.

The audience was split between two sides of the stage, giving it a floating, in-the-round quality, and we had a view of a handsomely pillared parlor below the stage that seemed a promising conceit but received little use.

The production’s only failing was a substantial one. Angélique’s lover, Cléante, played with appropriate gusto by Danny Binstock, disguises himself as her music master for a key scene in which they exchange information through song. In the original production, the music was by no less a composer than Marc-Antoine Charpentier; in this one, it’s credited to Jack Parton, but the duet was an annoyingly screechy a cappella travesty.

In any play, we accept the convention of actors inhabiting the characters they portray. We weep for Hamlet, not for John Barrymore, but we’re always aware that Barrymore is at work. And we want him to do a good job.

As the screechy duet carried on and on, it won some cheap laughs – there are always those snicker at train wrecks – but I suspect many more felt as I did, that we’d been betrayed by a creative team that left the actors out to dry. In short: we needed real music, and some form of musical accompaniment.

Because it was based on John Wood’s translation, the play finished abruptly with the triumphant Argan’s unexpected death, an homage to the fact that Molière himself, who played that role in what would be his very last play, died at the end of its fourth performance. It sounds an oddly dissonant note – but the original script’s alternative is a big, complicated dance sequence, so maybe it was just as well.

In any event, this is a singularly entertaining production of play we don’t get to see often enough, well worth the trip for its remaining few performances.

The Imaginary Invalid by Molière
Adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt
Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, July 13

Metroland Magazine, 19 July 2012

1 comment:

Jack Parton said...

As nice as it is to find one reviewer who mentioned the music, all fail to note the "petit overture", the tunes that Toniette clucks as she "spruces up" between scenes, and the "petit requiem" sung at Argan's passing, which I suppose must mean that, as settings of the modern text especially, the wink-and-smile allusions to the formalism of the day and to Charpentier's particular musical tics must have seemed so part of the texture and package that they warranted no mention. For any of these other musical moments, the cast, singly or in ensemble, availed themselves superbly, and made splendid and creditable adaption of what I'd written when it was needful to alter them. It is true that this "opera improviseé" for which this reviewer is solely crediting my skill was performed in the best Monty Python-esque screech-stimme, which I can only suggest is meant to convey, comedically, Angélique's terror and Cléante's unpreparedness in impersonating a music teacher to actually be required to make music; the scene is not one of romance as Cléante had intended, it was a scene of near-discovery mid-woo by Angélique's father. And indeed, as much as I love Charpentier's original music, I find his "opera improviseé" lovely but rather improbable dramaturgically: it is clear in the dialogue that Cléante has no voice for singing, and when the lovers are surprised by Argan and challenged to demonstrate what has been learned in the putative music lesson, it seems a bit of a stretch that they would suddenly set aside their shock at being caught to revert unaccountably back into Charpantier's wooing-song accompanied by a full consort of viols, and then finally revert similarly unaccountably back to distress as soon as they finish. None of what happened happened because the performers found themselves pressganged into an outlandish interpretation; quite the contrary, this was the moment when simultaneously the lovers have the opportunity to express their affection for each other while not arousing her father's suspicions and must also make it clear to the audience their terror at possibly being caught with severe consequences to follow while still maintaining the comedic tone of the play. This approach was quite deliberate and intended.

I write this not to discount this reviewer's distress at hearing my duet performed in a Monty-Python-housewife screech-stimme; Angélique's first utterance of the tune is a shocker. I will say that in the two evenings I was able to attend, this scene resulted in tear-inducing rolling-in-the-aisles laughter throughout. I can claim no credit for that, though-- In determining how best to contribute the music to this scene, I asked whether I should provide the comedy, and the director and I agreed that the core of the scene should still be a legitimate tune, a straight-forward and heartfelt setting of the English text, so that underneath the comedy one could still sense the underpinned lovers. That is what I hoped to have provided, and I have the manuscripts to show for it. The comedic genius that brought that scene to life on so many more levels than mere music is entirely credited to the director and the actors on stage.

With all respect to the reviewer whose review I gratefully appreciate was otherwise glowing, and merely hoping this provides a second perspective on one small part of the evening--

Jack Parton, composer.