ASHLAND, Ore. – If you like glitzy entertainment that pushes the boundaries of silly, you’ll feel right at home in the Parisian apartment of hypochondriac Argan.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Imaginary Invalid” – which opened in late February and runs through Nov. 6 — is an over-the-top adaptation of 17th century French playwright Molière’s comedy spoofing the medical establishment. Though any English version of the play is an adaptation of the original French, it was immediately apparent that this show is a far cry from the original.
Playwrights Oded Gross and Tracy Young (who also created OSF’s 2009 adaptation of “The Servant of Two Masters”) clearly had a fun time with the script. It is packed full of corny puns, body-function jokes, sexual innuendo, slapstick humor, and references to current healthcare reform, other Molière characters, and even other OSF productions. Audience responsiveness feeds this cast’s energy, even prompting some improvisation during opening weekend.
The plot centers on Argan (David Kelly), a hypochondriac obsessed with managing his imagined ailments. Life swirls around his wheelchair. He has two daughters (one beautiful and lovesick, the other humpbacked and hopeful), an unfaithful and scheming wife, a sassy but grounded housekeeper, and a “Man vs. Wild” brother who scoffs at physical weakness as much as Argan coddles it.
Beyond them is a parade of characters – including Argan’s revered doctor, whose outrageous costuming leaves no doubt that he’s the butt of this joke — who dance, sprawl, sing and twirl their way across a beautiful floor-to-ceiling stage that depicts the living area of Argan’s lavish home. And when I say sing, I mean that literally. The play is peppered with seven musical numbers composed by Paul James Pendergast, who co-wrote lyrics with Gross and Young. The music echoes the “Wall of Sound” style of early ‘60s music producer Phil Spector, Young explains in her director’s notes.
Like a fireworks show, this performance pops rapidly in many directions and colors, sometimes feeling a bit much, but ultimately it pulls together well for the grand finale, delivering a poignant carpe diem message. If opening weekend was any indication, most audiences will enjoy the ride. If, like me, you were hoping for a less modern, more satirically witty adaptation (à la works by playwrights Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, produced in recent years at OSF), you’ll be disappointed.
(An ironic bit of trivia: Molière – who is often called France’s Shakespeare – collapsed on stage in 1673 while playing Argan in the fourth performance of “The Imaginary Invalid.” He had suffered a hemorrhage of the lungs and died hours later, at age 51.)
Click on these links to read reviews of OSF’s current productions of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and Harper Lee’s literary classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” To order tickets or learn more about OSF’s 2011 season, visit osfashland.org.
-Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper reporter and editor since 1992. A longtime theater fan, she sees up to four plays annually at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You can find her in the lobby at intermission eating a pre-ordered, freshly baked chocolate-chip cookie. Candace lives in Redding and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival
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