The Boston Phoenix
May 7 - 14, 1998

[Dance Reviews]

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Sick jokes

Visiting The Imaginary Invalid at ART

by Scott T. Cummings

Belgreder "Okay, we're doing a little Gilbert and Sullivan here," says the man behind the piano.

"Is this in the script?"

"It's in the script of my mind. Just listen. ' Hepatitis, leukemia, laryngitis, anemia. Tendinitis, anorexia, gout, arthritis -- dyspepsia.' " As quickly as possible, the actors gathered in a semicircle around the piano jot down the list of diseases.

"What comes after arthritis? Dyslexia?" someone asks.

"No, dyspep -- wait a minute, yes, make it dyslexia. It's a better rhyme. Anorexia, dyslexia," says the piano man.

"Leukemia's not funny."

"What about bulimia?"

"Chlamydia! Chlamydia!" -- this offered to a chorus of groans and boos.

"Now that's comedy!"

For the next hour, a creative fever fills the room as 17 actors, three stage managers, two assistant directors, one director, and composer/lyricist Rusty Magee rehearse the G&S-style patter song that will conclude the production of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid opening at the American Repertory Theatre this weekend. If the activity at hand -- songwriting by committee -- makes for an unusual rehearsal, the prevailing mood of hilarity on the verge of chaos does not. That's the way director Andrei Belgrader likes it, at least on this Tuesday evening in late April. If a comedy is not fun for the actors to rehearse, the thinking goes, it won't be funny for an audience to watch.

The Imaginary Invalid marks the Cambridge return of Belgrader, Magee, and translator/adapter Shelly Berc, the three stooges responsible for such high points of low comedy at the Loeb as The Servant of Two Masters and Ubu Rock. For them, it marks a return to Molière as well; the trio adapted his Scapin for the Yale Repertory Theatre some years ago.

As great an actor as he was a playwright, Molière played the rascally trickster in the 1671 premiere of Scapin. When The Imaginary Invalid debuted less than two years later, Molière played Argan, the hypochondriacal dupe of the play's title. Although perfectly healthy, Argan is so concerned about getting sick that he insists his daughter marry a doctor so he can have constant medical attention. As any self-respecting theater buff will tell you, Molière was himself extremely ill at the time of the play's premiere, and after collapsing on stage toward the end of the fourth performance, he finished the show, went home, and died. Of course, this most sublime of ironies was no accident. Rather than retire from the stage, Molière wrote for himself a role that would incorporate his weakened condition and pulmonary cough; he spent most of his time on stage in a specially rigged chair.

Over dinner between rehearsals in Harvard Square, the Romanian-born Belgrader speaks of The Imaginary Invalid and the curious symbiosis between actor/playwright and role. "This whole play is about denial to a point that is extreme. There are millions of self-help books about how to find out this truth or that truth, but no one has written a book about the best tool we all have and use daily: denial. Argan denies every reality around him. He believes any lie that any character tells him at any time; he only questions when somebody speaks the truth to him. And I think Molière indulged himself in a comedy of denial. They built a chair for him and he played to death, as they say."

If there is a psychopathology of disease or a denial of death at work in Molière's swan song, Belgrader points out that it lies deep below the play's farcical surface. "We are in a clown world, and there are not that many nuances there. One of the interesting things about clowning is that the clown acknowledges that he is on stage." That overt theatricality is most explicit in the musical interludes that Molière placed between the acts and in the grand finale, which presents Argan's induction into the medical fraternity. This is where the adaptation of Belgrader, Berc, and Magee takes its greatest liberties with the original, as I learn at rehearsal that evening.

"Now we have to have something from Will," says Magee, ready to push ahead to the finale's second verse. ART company member Will LeBow plays Argan, who must come up with remedies for the diseases of the first verse. "How do you cure hepatitis?"

"Penicillin." That cure is too logical, too "on the nose" for Belgrader, as is treating a sore throat with a tracheotomy. He wants lyrics that are more scientific and more nonsensical at the same time. Magee reaches for the medical dictionary on top of the piano. The assistant directors scurry about looking for packages of over-the-counter medicines to see whether any of the polysyllabic ingredients sounds right. Just for fun, actor Tommy Derrah, back from his Broadway stint in Gip Hoppe's Jackie to play multiple doctors in Invalid, applies an instant mud mask. "They say it'll take 10 years off me." The silliness is contagious.

"Okay," says Magee, trying to focus the group. "I need another -ectomy to rhyme with tonsillectomy. What about Belgradectomy?"

A silent shake of the head from the director nixes that idea.



Comes a voice from the fray, "Now that's hitting below the belt."

Which the best comedy does, of course.

The American Repertory Theatre production of The Imaginary Invalid begins previews this weekend; it runs through June 7. Call 547-8300.