If ever there was a show that stops at nothing to elicit a laugh it has to be Berkeley Repertory’s A Doctor In Spite of Himself. This clever adaptation of Molière’s 17th century classic comedy is hilarious, smart and well, just plain fun. Director Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp (who also stars as the bumbling doctor, Sganarelle) are the geniuses behind the delectable absurdity and it is safe to say that Monsieur Molière would be rolling over in his grave – from laughter – if he perchance could see this show. Skewered throughout with up-to-the-moment pop culture references and liberally laced with sight gags, jokes and everything but the kitchen sink, A Doctor In Spite of Himself is a must-see dose of depravity that may require you to get stitches due to its propensity to provoke sidesplitting laughter.
Molière’s rapier wit, coupled with his utter disregard for the social conventions of his day, made for titillating theatre, as well as a plethora of enemies for the young satirist. Were it not for the patronage of King Louis XIV, his outrageous exposés of all things pompous and pretentious would have guaranteed an untimely end. Luckily for Bayes and Epp, such is not the case today – at least for this show. Though the play irreverently pokes fun at the medical profession -- and those who place unquestioning trust in a person just because they have a title -- the adaptation wisely focuses on the healing properties of laughter and then sets out to prove the diagnosis.
Led by Epps the stellar Actor’s Equity cast makes the comedy look easy but, as the Rep’s Artistic director Tony Taccone wisely points out, “…comedy, indeed, is serious business.” As the bits begin to fly and the clever double entendres hit their mark, it soon becomes clear that Taccone is right.
The simple plot of a nobleman’s daughter (Renata Friedman plays Goth-girl Lucinde) faking illness until she can find a way to marry the poor, though fabulous Léandre (Chivas Michael) allows the actors to soar and there are hijinks a plenty.
Allen Gilmore is absolutely hilarious as the troubled papa, Monsieur Géronte, who sends his none-too-bright servants Valére (Jacob Ming-Trent) and Lucas (Liam Craig) off to find a doctor.
The first person they run into is Martine (Justine Williams) and she dupes them into believing that Sganarelle, her lumbering woodcutter husband (with whom she’s just had a huge fight), is a doctor. They find him and, after beating him soundly about the head and shoulders (don’t ask); the three men are off to the mansion so that Sganarelle can cure the “icky sick girl.”
Sganarelle is flummoxed by how easy it is to convince the rich nobleman and his household that he is indeed a genius doctor. “I feel just like a real doctor,” he deadpans to the audience, “because no matter what I say, people believe whatever I say.” Soon, he correctly diagnoses Lucinde’s real problem as heartache, but not before he becomes enthralled with a bosomy housemaid named Jacqueline. (I believe the terms “juggernaughty” and “boobernaughts” were employed to describe her ample décolletage.) Julie Briskman is an absolute delight in this part and has a marvelous scene with Epp in which she segues from southern belle drawl to working-class Cockney straight through to Italian mafia moll – all in the space of a minute.
Director Bayes wisely slows the tempo down occasionally with beautiful melodic tunes sung by this engaging ensemble. But it isn’t long before all-out hilarious rap parodies pop up and we are back to sidesplitting laughter. Kristin Fiebig’s costumes are a joy to behold and do much to enhance the hilarity. Scene design (Matt Saunders) and sublime lighting and sound design (Yi Zhao and Ken Goodwin respectively) take the professional quality of this production over the top.
Berkeley Rep’s “Doctor” is highly recommended. In fact, subscribing to this innovative and adventurous theatre company’s entire season is absolutely prescribed. Since laughter is, indeed, the best medicine, go see A Doctor In Spite of Himself, playing now through March 25th.
A Doctor Inspite of Himself
Written by Molière
Adapted by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp
Directed by Christopher Bayes
A co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre
Now through March 25, 2012
Photo Courtesy of kevinberne.com