Sunday 7 June 2015

Imaginary Invalid takes long look back 350 years

Plot backdrop : French comic playwright and actor Moliere died in 1673 doing this satirical play that has currently been resurrected at the Jericho Arts Centre, produced by the United Players of Vancouver.  Dad's a devout and dedicated hypochondriac who believes in quack doctors. He wants his daughter to marry just such a one so he can continue to get 24/7 enemas, injections and potions galore, both at-hand and wholesale. She loves an artiste, meanwhile, and hates at first sight the nerdy doc-of-choice that Dad's decided on. Wife #2 wants Dad dead and her step-daughters hived off to a nunnery so she can grab the inheritance he's left them. Introduce a meddling and discerning and manipulative household maid, blend some period music and slapstick song-&-dance into the silly melange, and The Imaginary Invalid is what pops up with all the substance of a Sunday supper souffle.

WYSIWYG : Director Michael Fera says his troupe's intent and process involved "extensive research to clarify and flush out 17th century France" in what he termed "our enormous vision" whose participants both on-stage and off- wanted "to help create (Moliere's) world". And that the United Players succeed in doing in layers of talent coupled with visual and audial richness, no question. The script employed was, however, somewhat too flushed out and too enormous for a 25 C. Vancouver summer nite sitting on convention chairs in a small room with scant ventilation. Still, there's much to admire in the company's production, particularly for stage history afficionados.

Character hi-lites : As Dad Argan / Moliere, John Prowse creates a character who even as a mature adult is a risible naif with a basso profundo voice and a wicked cane that he helicopters about when not hobbling on it. "What I am afraid of is all those ailments I've never heard of!" he says, sounding like a 21st century ER frequent flyer. Maid Toinette (Maria J. Cruz) is cheeky and sly and punchy with her verbal jousts : "Real love and pretending are so hard to distinguish!" she teases Argan when he announces his marriage arrangement scheme. 

In the commedia dell'arte tradition, Invalid has stock characters like Punchinello who's a harlequin-inspired bit of comic relief with a hunchback and codpiece who jiggles his bits at the front row patrons while he belts out a goofy but tuneful soliloquy. Brad Bergeron executes the part with zest and vigour and leering scampers plus a commode interlude that was positively Pythonesque. Also playing Argan's brother-in-law Beralde, Bergeron had the best timing, pace and cadence of anyone over the night's shenanigans. Victoria Bass did double duty as the wicked witch stepmom Beline but also had some tasty licks on a baroque cello with a voice to match.

Costumes dandy and randy : Costume designer Jackie Talmey-Lennon worked creatively with Tapestry in Westwood Village. Between them they produced period costumes with laces and stockings and shoes and aristocratic coats and pantaloons that were simply stunning. Choreographer Jessie Au, like her surname, gave a gold medal performance in the staging of the troupe's choral movements, particularly their freeze-frame poses and heavenly finger-points. Todd R. Parker's set with asymmetrical door frames, brocade purple walls and outsize decorative coloured water urns gave a hint of the Palais Royale, Paris circa 1763, though the armchairs stage left were a bit more Sally Ann than high society. Music director Pat Unruh spliced together music researched from the Moliere original plus added some complementary contemporary riffs for baroque cello, bass recorder, alto recorder and harpsichord that were a delight on the ear.

Who gonna like : As indicated above, French theatre history buffs will likely be charmed by this contemporized period piece of Moliere's. Everyone likes to poke at health care's sore spots and bruise points, and Moliere's play probes and prods with familiar honesty in those respects nearly 350 years after he wrote it. Have to note that the first act particularly needed some judicious script amputation, about 15 minutes worth, and another 5 digits lopped off the second act wouldn't hurt either. But for a taste of the styles and themes and gestalt of Moliere's world, the United Players' production might be just the ticket for you.

Particulars : A United Players of Vancouver production at the Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street. Two hours, 15 minutes run-time including intermission. Through June 28th. Tickets via or phone 604.224.8007, ext. 2.

Production crew : Director Michael Fera.  Executive Producer / Artistic Director United Players Andree Karas.  Technical Director Graham Ockley.  Music Director Pat Unruh.  Choreographer Jessie Au.  Assistant Director Seamus Fera.  Set Designer Todd R. Parker.  Lighting Designer Randy Poulis.  Costume Designer Jackie Talmey-Lennon.  

Performers : Victoria Bass. Brad Bergeron. Maria J. Cruz. JD Duckman. Bronwyn Henderson. Cody Kearsley. John Prowse. Olesia Shewchuk. David Wallace.


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