by Lynn on September 20, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Molière
In a new version by Richard Bean
From a literal translation by Chris Campbell
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Teresa Przybylski
Lighting by Michael Walton
Composed by Berthold Carrière
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Choreography by Stephen Cota
Cast: Ben Carlson
Luke Humphrey
Peter Hutt
John Kirkpatrick
Ian Lake
Trish Lindström
Stephen Ouimette
Shannon Taylor
Rylan Wilkie
Brigit Wilson

NOTE: Procrastination is a terrible thing. Time seemed to get away from me with this one and a few others. Here, finally is the review.

A rollicking, biting romp through Molière’s satire in a wild new version by Richard Bean given a dandy production directed by Antoni Cimolino.

The Story. Argan was born to kvetch about his health, make that ‘ill-health”. He is convinced he’s dying. He seems to be single-handedly making his doctor rich diagnosing all his ailments, mainly imagined. Argan takes enemas hourly. He ponders his poop with the precision of a scientist. His biggest wish is for his daughter Angelique to marry a doctor so he wouldn’t have to pay one, as he would be a member of the family. Argan has made moves to that end, to arrange the marriage of Angelique and Thomas Diafoirerhoea, a dolt who wants to be a doctor. To say “studying” to be a doctor, would just be stupid. Angelique’s biggest wish is to marry her love Cleante, who is not a doctor in any way.

Involved in all this is Toinette, Argan’s sarcastic, irreverent housekeeper. She knows everything—how gullible Argan is; how irresponsible his doctors are; how true and loving Angelique is; and how conniving and greedy Argan’s wife Beline is. Also involved is Argan’s brother Beralde who tries to shake Argan out of his ridiculous assumption that he is sick and to show the folly of many doctors, if not medicine itself.

The Production. Director Antoni Cimolino often likes to set up his productions with stage business to establish an atmosphere or mood before the ‘play’ actually begins. With The Hypochondriac the audience that is filling into the theatre is treated to jugglers, magicians and other artists that would be at home in Molière’s day. They are dressed in Teresa Przybylski’s colourful costumes evoking Commedia dell’Arte characters. Organizing the activity is La Thorilliere, a member of Molière’s company, who will later play Beralde, Argan’s brother.

In Richard Bean’s wildly funny, irreverent yet serious version we are actually watching Molière play Argan as he did in February, 1673, giving the production many layers to consider.

When the play is about to begin, the lights dim a bit but there is enough light for us to see that Louis XIV and his entourage enter down the central aisle of the Festival Theatre. A courtier carries his little royal chair and places it at the bottom of the aisle close to the stage, where Louis will watch. I don’t think anyone’s vision was obstructed by his ostentatiously high soaring wig.

Argan is wheeled on in a commode/wheelchair of sorts, the better to examine in minute details the colour, texture and frequency of his bowel movements. He keeps records of his bodily excretions. This wheelchair also gives the impression that Argan is in fact infirm and unable to walk. This of course is not true and he is quite able bodied, even spry, when he’s alone and gets up from the chair.

Director Antoni Cimolino packs every second of the production with humour that comes naturally from the situation or the character. Cimolino mines the humour in this scathing satire as carefully as Argan looks for any derivation in his fecal matter. Much of the humour comes first from Argan’s self-absorption with his health and his determination to think himself sick and his sparring with Toinette, his irreverent housekeeper. He wants sympathy and she won’t give it to him. What she gives him is sass; the brutal truth about what is going on in that house, and her determination to make him see the light.

The wondrous Stephen Ouimette plays Argan who in turn is played by Molière—and he does it all with consummate comedic skill and perfect timing. Ouimette’s sad-sack face gives Argan a constant look of worry; Ouimette’s droopy eyes suggest Argan might have sleep deprivation—well all that worry about his bodily functions will do that to a person; and there is easy irritation with anyone who is not totally focused on him. Ouimette is absolutely serious with this biting of satires, and that makes him and the situations in the play all the funnier.

I do note that Ouimette seems a bit subdued in his performance as Argan. I realize Argan thinks he’s sick when we know he’s not. Then I finally get it. Ouimette is also playing Molière (who is playing Argan—are you keep all this clear—there will be a test.) Molière dwelled on his health. Not to give too much away, Molière was ill when he was performing this play. In a lovely subtle touch we get that sense of Molière’s ill-health affecting his performance of Argan, and Ouimette conveys that beautifully.

Ouimette is wonderfully matched by Brigit Wilson as Toinette. Wilson plays her with an impish glint in her eye and a knowing smirk on her face. She knows Argan is a fool and doesn’t hide it. She is fearless with her employer and won’t back down. Her body language is confident and she’s not timid to raise her voice when making a point. She doesn’t yell, but she’s forceful in scoring her points.

As the young lovers Angelique and Cleante, Shannon Taylor and Luke Humphrey are charming. Taylor has the light, buoyancy of a young, pampered woman who is anxious for her father to allow her to marry her love. Humphrey is that awkward, boyish young man who is equally as anxious. Taylor also plays Armand Bejart, Molière’s wife, who is playing Angelique. When she perceives that her husband, Molière’s is unwell Taylor assumes a subtle maturity that is different from Angelique. It’s beautifully rendered.

While Toinette uses barbs and satire to prick Argan’s sense of entitlement and gullibility, Argan’s brother Beralde uses flat out moral outrage. He rails at the corrupt world of medicine to make his brother come to his senses. No one does moral outrage like Ben Carlson who plays Beralde. Carlson’s brow furrows; his body leans forward when he makes a point; his arms slice the air with authority. But when it’s clear in the production that Molière is unwell, his manner changes. This is serious and not serious comedy. The change again is subtle but the effect is sobering.

Comment. The Hypochondriac on the one hand is a bracing, funny satire about the quackery of medicine and the gullible people who fall for it, but then Richard Bean blurs the lines in his new version by introducing a moment of reality into the proceedings, thus (rightfully) unsettling the audience. Cimolino directs with a deft hand realizing the humour and sobering seriousness as well. Terrific production.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: Aug. 18, 2016.
Closes: Oct. 14, 2016.
Cast: 31; 19 men; 12 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.


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