Ah, the sophisticated pleasures of the classic theatre! The poop jokes, the pee gags, the onstage anal irrigation.
For those of who bemoan the state of culture in the 21st century, Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino always programs one play each season to remind us that it was ever thus, that bawdy, body-based humour was around long before YouTube or Amy Schumer.
Last season, Stephen Ouimette – one of the greats of the Canadian stage – ran around with a potty in Ben Jonson’s 1610 quackery-exposing comedy The Alchemist.
This year, he does the same to similar purpose but greater comic effect as Argan, the self-centred and anally-fixated title character in Molière’s 1673 comédie-ballet The Hypochondriac. (Written in prose, I’m sorry to say; its scatological jokes don’t even have verse to hide behind.)
We first meet the tight-fisted Argan going over a pile of doctor’s bills. “Twenty-fourth of January, a penetrating, emollient exemplum to soften, moisten and enliven Monsieur’s rectum,” he reads aloud. Then aside to the audience, dryly: “What I appreciate most about Doctor Purgon’s invoices is the poetry.”
The Hypochondriac appears here in British playwright Richard Bean’s 2005 adaptation of the comedy originally known as Le malade imaginaire and often translated as The Imaginary Invalid.
The Stratford Festival has produced it three times before – with those other titles and in other translations – in 1958, 1974 and 1993.
Bean removes one female character (oddly) and adds in the show’s grossest gross-out gag, but mostly sticks to Molière’s rather simple plot. Argan wants to marry off his daughter, Angelique (Shannon Taylor, surprising us with a superb soprano at one point), to a horrible, young doctor-to-be (Ian Lake, suitably disgusting) in order to get consultations for his imaginary ailments for free.
However, Angelique wants to marry the poor-but-handsome apprentice Cleante (the exceptionally charming Luke Humphrey). And Argan’s wife, Beline (Trish Lindström, in another wonderfully clownish performance), wants the girl, her stepdaughter, sent to a nunnery, so she can inherit her husband’s fortune when he croaks.
It’s up to Toinette (Brigit Wilson), Argan’s comically contemptuous servant, and Beralde (Ben Carlson), his supremely skeptical brother, to find a way to show him that he’s wasting his money on doctors, that his wife is out to get him and that his daughter deserves happiness.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – the French actor and playwright known professionally as Molière who entertained le Roi-Soleil Louis XIV in the 17th century – does not seem to have been a fan of doctors. Six of his comedies spend a lot of time making fun of the medical profession.
In part, Molière was simply following the lead of the popular commedia dell’arte, which had the farcical Il Dottore as one of it stock characters. (Indeed, a number of Dottores – in their traditional black robe, hat and half-masks – make an appearance in Cimolino’s production, telling us to turn off our cellphones in a very funny fashion.)
But Molière also seemed to have a personal grudge against doctors who weren’t able to help him out in his final years – he actually collapsed onstage during a performance of The Hypochondriac and died afterward at his home. This vendetta – like Bernard Shaw’s similar skepticism in his comedies a couple centuries later – can seem strange to an audience in a time when medicine is science rather than art and in a country that prides itself on its universal health care.
In Bean’s translation and Cimolino’s production, however, a modern target is very clear – homeopaths and health fads, the anti-vaxxer crowd and all those who now choose art over science when it comes to medical matters. As Beralde says of the dirty doctors on display here (in a line Carlson, thankfully, underplays to deliver maximum comic effect): “With friends like this, who needs enemas?”
You’re either going to love Ouimette’s deliciously deadpan delivery of bedpan jokes, or you’re going to find the whole thing a bit cheap (as many of Molière’s critics of the day did).
But while much of The Hypochondriac may be crass, Cimolino’s production – set in the court of Louis XIV – is undeniably beautiful. While the prologue and opera interlude is not in Bean’s adaptation, Cimolino reinserts some of the original’s dance elements, so Stratford’s musical theatre company is onstage before the show, going through its paces in advance of the King’s arrival in an echo of A Chorus Line. Cinq, six, sept, huit!
Teresa Przybylski’s set and costumes are colourful eye candy, especially her bizarre, towering wigs for the gentlemen, seemingly half-inspired by cotton candy, half by cottontails. She even finds ways to put French doors on a thrust stage.
P.S. Good on Stratford for crediting the literal translation that Bean worked from. It is by Chris Campbell. The other big repertory theatre company in Ontario has not been doing so.
The Hypochondriac continues at the Stratford Festival (stratfordfestival.ca) until Oct. 14.Report Typo/Error