The Hypochondriac by Moliere

Stratford Festival of Canada

By: - Aug 26, 2016

The Hypochondriac
By Moliere
National Festival Company
Stratford Festival of Canada
55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario
(519) 273-1600

Directed  by  Antoni Cimolino
Cast: Eric Abel, Petrina Bromley Ben Carlson, David Collins, Stephen Cota, Colton Curtis,  Ijeoma Emesowum, JJ Gerber, Luke Humphrey, Peter Hutt, Robin Hutton, Galen Johnson, John Kirkpatrick, Ian Lake, Trish Lindstrom, Jamie Mac,  Allison McCaughey, Julia McLellan, Reid McTavish, Matt Nethersole, Sarah Orenstein, Stephen Ouimette, Jason Sermonia, Sanjay Talwar, Shannon Taylor, Brian Tree, Rylan Wilkie, Brigit Wilson, Antoine Yared.  Juggler: Doug DeForrest  
Musicians: Shannon Kahan, Terry McKenna, Donna-Claire McLeod
Set Costume Designer: Teresa Przybylski; Lighting Designer: Michael Walton; Composer: Berthold Carriere; Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne; Choreographer: Stephen Cota; Commedia dell’Arte Coach:  Perry Schneiderman; Juggling Coach: Doug DeForrest; Additional Lyrics by: David Prosser

Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire was perhaps his favorite play, incorporating farce, satire, music, dancing, physical clowning, and lectures on beliefs he thought important.  That description may suggest why it has never been one of his most beloved or popular plays, despite its dazzling wit.  Add the fact that in most versions and translations, it is also shocking enough in details and language to appear to many to be censorable. 

The most satisfying production of this comedy that I’ve seen was a fairly faithful version in Washington, DC, in 2008. The text was adapted by popular American writer Alan Drury. The choreography for the initial formal ballet to Charpentier’s music as well as the folksier modern theater-dances thereafter was beautifully handled by Dame Gillian Lynne, the originator of the dance and movement in “Cats.”

The witty direction, more elegant than “knockout,” was by famed English actor, Keith Baxter, who was Maggie Smith’s partner in several major productions here in Stratford, Ontario. And the title role [as well as the more dignified figure of Moliere in the more formal introduction and interludes] was America’s great farceur, Rene Auberjonois.  Even so, that many-faceted treat seemed an odd mix of not necessarily complementary virtues that might have improved with a little trimming.

Antoni Cimolino’s production is showy, full of brilliant moments, superbly cast, and elaborately staged.  But what should be a souffle soon begins to feel like a heavy, overfilled, over-spiced stew.  Stratford’s young actors demonstrate that they are appealing and (some of them) showy acrobatic dancers. We can’t hear them clearly at first, but we can watch them, as we peer around the audience members in the aisles, getting seated, for at least 20 minutes before the play begins.  THEN we get quite a lot more of the same movement and singing before anything of any dramatic note occurs.  Ditto during intermission and thereafter.

And startling as the talk might be, about looking at the imaginary invalid’s “shit-pot” and what the turds look like this time after the latest enema, the THIRD time that scene and talk are repeated with almost no variation, they are less amusing.

Stephen Ouimette is, as far as I can tell, a genuinely great actor every time we see him, and in a startling variety of roles. He is alternately biting, meaningful, hilarious, and even pitiful as the foolish Argan in his bed or wheelchair. He is sufficiently different as Moliere; but even he cannot counteract the weakening of effect in all those repetitions. 

In the case of the lovely and charming maidservant Toinette, even as played with delicious tongue-in-cheek by Brigit Wilson, I think we begin to feel sorry for the actress who has to virtually repeat those scenes about looking into the pot and describing the results of each enema for the increasingly bad-tempered Argan. 

Another truly great actor, Ben Carson, fares better as Argan’s doctor-hating  brother who calls Argan a hypochondriac. But the usually relieving silly performing of the troupe of actors hired to make fun of doctors is pretty heavy-handed.  And Stephen Cota’s choreography is repetitious and unimaginative.  Berthold Carrierre’s music is actually spirited and even lovely; and all the singers and instrumentalists are first rate. So are the dancers, but I wished they had choreography of more persuasive character.

Still, it’s beautifully performed Moliere, with all its inconsistencies and repetitions, and that means great wit and fascinating performances.  I guess that’s enough.