Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Imaginary Invalid
Also see Susan's review of This Beautiful City
Director Keith Baxter says in his notes for the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of The Imaginary Invalid that he is attempting to present Molière's last play at Washington's Lansburgh Theatre in much the same form as Paris audiences first saw it. Specifically, he is presenting the performance of February 17, 1673, when the author played the title hypochondriac and died soon after the curtain came down.
The problem is that a contemporary audience has expectations different from those of the court of Louis XIV. These days, dancing shepherdesseseven with choreography by Broadway veteran Gillian Lynne and the original music by Marc-Antoine Charpentierand stylized interactions between commedia dell'arte lovers don't reinforce the author's primary satire of overly confident and under-qualified doctors; they detract from it and slow it down.
Left to the main plot, Baxter keeps the farcical complications going at a respectable speed. René Auberjonois, in his Shakespeare Theatre debut, is a delight in the title role of Argan, a man who spends his life worrying about the illnesses he doesn't really have. (As Molière showed in this and other plays, the 17th-century practice of medicine was as regimented and tradition-bound as the classical theater. Theory and memorization took precedence over research, and most treatments seem to have consisted of bloodletting and enemas.)
Washington favorite Nancy Robinette matches Auberjonois gesture for gesture and facial expression for expression as Toinette, Argan's insubordinate maid. Toinette's major role in the plot is to help persuade Argan to consent to the marriage of his daughter Angélique (Gia Mora) to the man she loves, Cléante (Tony Roach), rather than the young doctor Thomas Diafoirus (the hilariously deadpan Levi Ben-Israel), whose empty headone can almost hear air blowing through his sinusesis balanced by generous endowments elsewhere.
Kaitlin O'Neal gives a full-bodied performance (in more ways than one) as Béline, Argan's greedy second wife, and Emily Whitworth is pleasingly natural among the artifice as Louison, Argan's younger daughter.
In keeping with Baxter's concept of archaic stagecraft, Simon Higlett has designed a set of brick walls, panels of cracked and weathered-looking wood, two-dimensional drops, and occasionally a reversible piece of scenery, as when Argan's bed converts into a balcony. Robert Perdziola adds to the atmosphere with his sumptuous costume designs.
Shakespeare Theatre Company