'Invalid' has audience in stitches


Argan, the title character of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid, is convinced he is a sick man. He is happy among his bottles of medicine and happier still when a doctor or apothecary tells him how ill he is and prescribes a new treatment.

He is not only a hypochondriac, but also a cheapskate. As the play opens, he is going over his accounts, disputing the cost of every treatment and consultation. He has arranged to marry off his daughter Angelique to a young physician, the son of Argan's doctor.

Under that happy arrangement, he will no longer have to pay for medical attention.

By now you will have guessed, if you go to the theater much, that Angelique is in love with someone else. And you would be right if you assumed that a clever, sassy maidservant will dream up a plan to free Angelique of the engagement and unite her with her beloved.

As performed in 1673 by Moliere and his troupe, the comedy had a prologue in classical style, interludes of music and dance unrelated to the plot and, as a finale, a burlesque of a full-scale academic ceremony, spoken and sung in macaronic Latin.

As performed in 2006 by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, The Imaginary Invalid plays like a Marx Brothers movie. Director Ken Elston has, of necessity, reworked the show for today's audience. He makes the most of Moliere's effective scenes and showy roles, adds imaginative staging and clever business, and gives the audience a hilarious evening.

The production rests on the shoulders of Nathan Thomas, as Argan, who responds with a solid, professional performance. (It is a quibble, but Thomas' Argan seems remarkably strong and healthy throughout the play. Yes, we know his ills are all in his head, but we'd expect a raving hypochondriac to feel infirm and whiny.)

In place of the traditional demure and dutiful daughter, Valerie Fenton creates a noisy, outgoing Angelique who trumpets her every emotion. Tami Moon is energetic if not subtle as the maidservant Toinette.

Moon lights up the stage for much of the play. In her big scene, she poses as a doctor whose radical new methods intrigue Argan. Her surgical instruments include a wooden mallet and an eggbeater.

Argan's second wife, Beline, pretends great love for her husband but is really waiting for him to die. Rebecca Ellis portrays Beline in her many modes: lording over Angelique and Toinette, drenching Argan in baby talk, scheming with a notary to get every franc of his estate.

Dr. Diafoirus is Argan's physician. In this production, for whatever reason, the doctor is a woman.

The character embodies Moliere's view of medical professionals as poseurs, haughtily pretending to great knowledge, wrapping themselves in Latin phrases, conning rich people to get rich themselves. As Dr. Diafoirus, Leslie Malin delivers a savvy performance, with no gesture wasted.

Her son Thomas, as he first appears asking for Angelique's hand, seems to be a stupid lout. Later, he reveals a functioning but rigidly pedantic mind. Patrick Kilpatrick's fine comic talent helps us forget the inconsistency.

Frank Mancino portrays Beralde, Argan's sensible brother, who has no use for the medical profession and tries to wean Argan from his hypochondria. The role gives no room for the amusing overacting that the director encourages in most of the other performers, so the character, unfortunately, seems dull by comparison.

Ashly Ruth Fishell plays Louison, Argan's scatty younger daughter, and Christopher Niebling is Angelique's true love, Cleante. Completing the cast are Kevin Costa (Dr. Purgon, a physician), Chuck Leonard (Mr. Fleurant, an apothecary) and Wayne Willinger (Mr. Bonnefoi, a notary).

The 17th-century costumes are given wildly comic touches by designer Magenta Brooks and consultant Kristina Lambdin. Chuck Leonard has designed a simple but handsome set. Dan O'Brien and Dave Eske provide effective lighting.

In the 17th century, medical treatment consisted chiefly of physics and enemas, with the occasional bloodletting. Some of Moliere's comic lines, therefore, don't have much relevance today. But thanks to Elston's direction The Imaginary Invalid can still give a 2006 audience plenty at which to laugh.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 19 at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. The Feb. 12 matinee will be a family performance, recommended for children ages 7 and older. Reservations: 866-811- 4111, or www.chesapeakeshake speare.com.

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