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Merry Men

by B.A. Nilsson on July 19, 2012

By Molière, adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, through July 22
The Imaginary Invalid

Who farted? I FARTED! Peter Dinklage in The Imaginary Invalid

Were you to laugh at this production hard enough to be-merde yourself, it would only be in keeping with the spirit of the play. Molière’s “imaginary invalid,” the valetudinarian Argan (Ethan Phillips), leads us at the top of the show through a monologue in which he details no end of scatological disorder, punctuating the diatribe with a long, silent, lovingly rendered fart.

The temptation to overdo it must have been considerable, but Phillips and director Erica Schmidt found the right confluence of character and delivery to allow the laughs to emerge from the heart of the show. Molière gives plenty of room for stylization and stage business, and the ensemble that tore into this piece used up most of that space.

This marked the return of Schmidt and her actor-spouse Peter Dinklage to the Bard stage after their 2008 Uncle Vanya. Dinklage’s PR stock since has soared with Game of Thrones, but he was every bit the ensemble player in this rollicking farce.

And the ensemble was made up entirely of men, as we learned during the sung prologue that brought out the nine cast members in period undergarments, soon to sport costume designer Andrea Lauer’s true-to-the-spirit suits and gowns. Beyond Commedia dell’arte tradition itself, there was little in the way of camp to this production. In a very short time you forgot that lovesick Angélique was being played by a man, because Preston Sadleir informed the character with a core of truth.

Likewise for Zachary Booth’s take on the scheming (and gorgeously costumed) Béline, who is contriving to get Angélique out of the way so that Argan’s fortune will be solely hers. Béline’s guile showed as an undercurrent of controlled energy, nicely done.

As Argan’s maid, Toinette, Dinklage had the plum role of the Harlequin of the piece, the scheming and ultimately triumphant servant. He raced into his first scene with Joe Besser-like little-boy fuss, and kept up a steady stream of well-delivered wisecracks or, when those weren’t available, eye-rolls and general (and funny) posturing.

There was a sense throughout of both a push to the edge of characterization and an homage to classic character actors. Thus Kevin Cahoon’s wily notary, Bonnefoi, had a Gene Wilder aspect, Damian Young’s M. Darréah suggested Frank Morgan and, as the young, repulsive suitor Thomas Darréah, the brilliant Henry Vick channeled Grady Sutton.

And through it all, Phillips kept the madness churning with his skillful shifting from complaints to arrogance to indignation to whatever frailty suited the Molière moment.

Laura Jellinek’s set design placed the action on a platform raised enough to allow a long flight of stairs up and down which the characters—particularly Toinette—stormed, and Dinklage had a field day with a quick-change moment in which Toinette impersonates a pompous physician.

The audience was split between two sides of the stage, giving it a floating, in-the-round quality, and we had a view of a handsomely pillared parlor below the stage that seemed a promising conceit but received little use.

The production’s only failing was a substantial one. Angélique’s lover, Cléante, played with appropriate gusto by Danny Binstock, disguises himself as her music master for a scene in which they exchange information through song. The duet was an annoyingly screechy a cappella travesty.

In any play, we accept the convention of actors inhabiting the characters they portray. We weep for Hamlet, not for John Barrymore, but we’re always aware that Barrymore is at work. And we want him to do a good job.

As the screechy duet carried on and on, it won some cheap laughs, but I suspect many more felt as I did, that we’d been betrayed by a creative team that left the actors out to dry. In short: We needed real music.

The play finished abruptly with the triumphant Argan’s unexpected death, an homage to the fact that Molière himself, who played that role in what would be his very last play, died at the end of its fourth performance. It sounds an oddly dissonant note—but the original script’s alternative is a big, complicated dance sequence, so maybe it was just as well.

In any event, this is a singularly entertaining production of play we don’t get to see often enough, well worth the trip for its remaining performances.