A Doctor in Spite of Himself
It is common to dub this a lesser-known composition by the master playwright (who also acted many times and perhaps in an early production of this piece) and so it is true. Call it a minor gem. Sitting in the house before the play actually begins beneath colored light bulbs while listening to tunes such as The Who's "See Me, Feel Me," one is hoping to be charmed. I was not quite prepared, as Harry Nilsson's "Put the Lime in the Coconut" echoed throughout the old theater, for dancing in the aisles by eager ushers (who have been known to be, by day, drama students) ... and then joined by various theater patrons who simply could not resist!
This particular version of the ludicrous, witty, slapstick, sight-gag galore comedy, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has been adapted by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp. Bayes knowingly directs, and Epp shines as leading absurdist man Sganarelle. Before proceeding further with additional digression, an acknowledgment here to the vastly talented and versatile two-person band seated stage right. Greg C. Powers plays trombone, tuba, and ukulele and Robertson Witmer is on accordion, clarinet, and drums. Aaron Halva composed and directs the excellent music.
Here we go: Sganarelle happens to be a woodcutter who is essentially at war with his wife, Martine (Justine Williams). Martine, as outfitted by Kristin Fiebig, demonstrates a drooping chest which bobs and flops as she and her husband spar. Martine spreads the word that Sganarelle is really a physician who is able to come up with cures for most anything. Lucas (Liam Craig) and Valere (Jacob Ming Trent) are desperate to find a way to restore Lucinde (Renata Friedman) to a healthy state. Lucinde does not speak because she does not wish to wed the man her father, the wealthy Geronte (Allen Gilmore), has selected for her. Lucas and Valere work for Geronte. Lucinde has eyes for youthful Leandre, played by Chivas Michael who is double cast as an old man. Well, Lucas and Valere rough up Sganarelle who claims he is not a doctor but then reverses and says he is. At Geronte's place, he cannot keep away from Jacqueline (Julie Briskman) the wet nurse ... Matt Saunders, scenic designer, supplies many an appropriate touch throughout.
All of this, in theory, occurs during the seventeenth century and in France. The genre? Try a valve-open interpretation of commedia dell'arte. It is audacious, obvious, ribald, and encourages actor freedom (to say the very least). Yet, none of the goings-on could be as effective if not finely tuned and if performers are not well-disciplined. Yale Rep/Berkeley Rep brings us fantastic comedy which is anything but haphazard.
Along the way, Bayes and Epp toss in allusions to, for example, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and the familiar story, "Goodnight, Moon." My personal favorite was a repeated reference to The Music Man. Harold Hill implores: "You gotta know the territory." Watch A Doctor in Spite of Himself and have fun with the many contexts and meanings within the scope of this 90-minute show which, by the way, runs without intermission.
During the evening's first phase as Sganarelle and Martine go at one another, a puppet show, just behind them, provides a mini-reflection of the characters and skirmishes. Facilitated by Renata Friedman, these are priceless moments and a lovely addition.
The presentation is saturating and anything more might have been just too much. It all concludes on a delectably sweet note.
A Doctor in Spite of Himself continues at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre through December 17th. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol