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Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid (“Le malade imaginaire,” 1673) at the FISHER CENTER, BARD COLLEGE

by Ross Rice

Thanks to a wellspring of raw talent, and high visibility with film roles in The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, The Chronicle of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and the recent mega-​​smash hit HBO series Game of Thrones, multiple award-​​winning actor Peter Dinklage has finally achieved much deserved respect from audiences and peers alike. After years of hard work and struggle in the fickle business, while fighting against preconceptions and stereotypes, the star actor is enjoying his break by…er…shaving his beard, putting on a dress, and playing a maid in a French farce from the mid-​​1600s. In a supporting role, no less.

Peter Dinklage

Peter Dinklage, photo by Vera Anderson

You could say his wife made him do it, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. No doubt she asked him nicely, and Dinklage — well known to be an “actor’s actor” — is clearly participating quite willingly. His wife happens to be acclaimed writer/​director Erica Schmidt, who has been tapped by Bard College for her fourth SummerScape theatrical production this July, and in counterpoint to her 2011 all-​​female rendition of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya—with Dinklage playing the lead — this year it’s Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid (“Le malade imaginaire”). But this time with an all-​​MALE cast.

Erica Schmidt

Erica Schmidt, photo courtesy of the artist

In keeping with the predominantly Gallic theme of the 2012 Bard Music Festival, honoring French Romantic composer Camille Saint-​​Saëns (1835 – 1921), it makes perfect sense for Bard to feature a “comedy of manners” by the country’s best-​​known comedic actor/​playwright: Jean-​​Baptiste Poquelin, who wrote and performed under the name Molière (1622 – 1673). Considered one of his most well constructed comedies, Invalid unfortunately came to be his swan song as both writer and actor. While performing the lead role one evening, Molière was twice seized by coughing fits (he suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis) causing a hemorrhage, which took his life shortly after the final curtain. Like any great comedian, he refused to die onstage.

Born in Paris to a well-​​off bourgeois family, Jean-​​Baptiste Poquelin himself had a story worthy of its own script. Both his mother and stepmother died before he turned 15. His father was appointed to the court to maintain the King’s carpets and upholstery, allowing his son access to the best possible education, as well as a clear career path at court. But Jean-​​Baptiste did the then-​​unthinkable: at 21, he fell for an actress, quit the upholstery business, and formed a drama troupe.

To spare his father of the embarrassment of having a son in the theatre, he changed his name to Molière (reportedly after a village near Le Vigan), and after several disastrous money-​​losing ventures — resulting in a brief stint in debtor’s prison, where he probably contracted the TB that killed him — his troupe took to the provinces, where they honed their act for the next 12 years. During this time Molière began writing for the company, road-​​testing the works, allowing him the chance to develop his dialogue and scene construction techniques, as well as his reportedly first-​​rate acting chops.

Word had it that the King’s brother, Phillipe I, Duke of Orléans, was looking to support a dramatic company under his name. Molière saw his opportunity, and brought his well-​​prepared troupe back to Paris, eventually securing an audience with Louis XIV. When the selected tragedy appeared to underwhelm the royal audience, Molière quickly requested a second chance from the King, and when granted, performed his own The Love-​​Sick Doctor, the resulting merriment earning his troupe the coveted patronage.

Molière’s ability to hilariously make fun of the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of priests, doctors, and tastemakers in high society endeared him to the King, while naturally making him controversial to the rest of the court. The public loved him as both actor and writer, and his troupe eventually became the King’s Troupe, playing the Théâtre du Palais Royal until his untimely post-​​performance death at 51. The church — a frequent target — had its petty revenge: no priests would take his confession, as actors were of the social status of pickpockets and prostitutes and automatically excommunicated, nor would they allow him to be interred in holy ground. The King eventually paid his last respects by allowing his body to be buried in Cemetery Saint Joseph, though under cover of darkness.

Le Malade Painting

Le malade imaginaire, 1900, Edouard Vuillard, Scala/​White Images/​Art Resource, NY

The body of work left behind — including The Learned Ladies, The School for Husbands, The School for Wives, The Misanthrope, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Tartuffe, The Miser—has enjoyed over three centuries of performances all over the world, while providing a virtual master class in how to construct a great comedy, relying on language and character development and revelation over gimmicks and coincidences. Like all of those considered “the greats,” Molière has had his harsh critics (Laurence Olivier referred to him once as being “funny as a baby’s open grave”), and has gone in and out of style over the years. But he’s never been out of style for too long. As they say, you can’t fake the funny.

A century after his death, Molière — though deeply unfashionable among the cognoscenti of the time — found a fan in French composer Camille Saint-​​Saëns, who greatly enjoyed the plays, and even attempted to rewrite the missing incidental music to Invalid. This connection was one of the reasons Invalid was this year’s choice for SummerScape; as Associate Director of the Fisher Center for the Arts Susana Meyer explains: “Normally as a matter of mission, we present the less obvious pieces. We have the motto of our Music Fest, which we adopt — which is ‘new discoveries.’ Though The Imaginary Invalid is not a new discovery, it is less often done.” Not to mention with men in the female roles.

But when it is done, and done right, it’s a can’t-fail laugh fest. And Schmidt has a talent-​​packed cast for the job here, starting with Dinklage playing the faithful and resourceful maid Toinette, who takes no guff from the batty master she is actually fiercely protective of. The hypochondriac’s lawyer brother Béralde is played by Donnie Keshawarz (TV: The Sopranos, 24, Law and Order, Lost; Film: The Adjustment Bureau, 2011), and the rivals for the hand of the daughter are virtuous daughter’s choice Cléante, played by Danny Binstock (Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Titus Andronicus), and awkward father’s choice Thomas Diaforius, played by Henry Vick (Twelfth Night). Damian Young (Californication, Damages, Law and Order) doubles as the two unscrupulous doctors Mr. Purgon and Dr. Diaforius, Thomas’s father.

As for the ladies, the duplicitous second wife Béline is played by Zach Booth, while the put-​​upon innocent daughter Angélique is portrayed by Preston Sadleir. Both actors are reuniting after co-​​starring as identical twins in a recent Off-​​Broadway première of Edward Albee’s Me Myself & I. Lest you think it’s Monty Python men-​​in-​​drag style, think again. Meyer: “Oh no, it’s very well controlled. I have to tell you, I had no idea guys could look so sexy in a corset! Erica is very clear; when she read the play, (she saw that) women were portrayed in an extremely stereotypical manner. Once she started imagining the parts played all by men — not men in drag, this is male actors playing women — that gave her a much different (perspective). It evened the playing field for her, and it made more sense.”

Without a doubt, it is the starring title role of Argan, the hopelessly gullible hypochondriac pitted against a bevy of conniving sweet-​​talking and authoritative money-​​grubbers, that gives a comedic actor veritable acres of scenery to gleefully chomp. Ethan Phillips brings enormous talent and experience to the role, and though his face and voice should be easily recognized (Stage: LA’s Court Theatre, Hamlet; The Geffen, You Can’t Take it With You; The Barrymore, Mamet’s November; TV: Arrested Development, Law and Order, Bones, Boston Legal; Film: Greencard, The Shadow, Ragtime, Lean on Me, The Island, Keith, Big Game), chances are good that you are most familiar with his recurring role as the affable alien “morale officer” Neelix, on the series Star Trek: Voyager.

Ethan Phillips

Ethan Phillips

The role of Argan is ripe for overplaying, sorely tempting actor and director alike. Phillips admits, “that’s my inclination. But (director Schmidt) is wonderful. She’s focusing more on the darkness of the play, and the reality of it. Although the humor is going to be poundingly funny — I hope — she’s really grounding it, focusing more on the intensity and intellect Molière had when addressing the medical profession. Still has all the funny stuff, but she’s trying to kick out the ham, if you will.”

Where many actors who have miles on the odometer gravitate toward direction, Phillips has moved toward playwriting. Through his association with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute Playwright’s Lab, Brave New Works, and The WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory, he has been a strong advocate for the creation of new works for the stage, including his own play Penguin Blues, which has seen hundreds of performances in the U.S and Canada.

His most recent work (working title: Skin Puppets) has been workshopped in London and several U.S. colleges, and is presently slated for its production première this fall, in Washington state. “It’s a dark comedy about two middle-​​aged men, who are facing the fact that they might have come to nothing in life, in terms of what their dreams had been. And how they get challenged by this very strange woman. Who may or may not be Satan.”

This is Phillips’ third time with Molière. What’s his take on the playwright? “Well, he’s a tough nut to crack initially, because his dialogue can seem a little formal, although I’m seeing that the translations are becoming more modern. I just think he is a classic smart dude. ‘Why am I still in the room?’ That’s what I ask myself when I write, and when I act. How come the character hasn’t left? With Molière there’s always a good solid reason why he’s still there. The objectives for all the characters in Molière are very straightforward, and fun to tap into.”

And a lot of it is harsh! Back in the day, he had to lighten and leaven it all with ballet and musical interludes, so they wouldn’t get so caught up in how intense he gets. (He was) really polemical, and tough on the powers that be. And it’s still applicable today.”

Phillips recently made the L.A.-to-N.Y.C. move, and so far — other than not having any bands to blow saxophone with (yet) — it’s been a good switch. His experience with the Star Trek franchise — appearing on both Star Trek: Next Generation (1987) and Enterprise (2001), as well as his full run with Voyager—has made him a sci-​​fi favorite, most recently with the upcoming series Space Command, created by Star Trek writer Mark Zicree. Phillips can be seen next year on the silver screen, in the Coen Brothers upcoming Inside Llewyn Davis, about the Greenwich Village folk-​​singing scene in the 60s. And anyone who saw him on Broadway with Nathan Lane, in David Mamet’s November (2007 – 8), knows he can work the Great White Way.

So, with the Argan/​Toinette interplay so integral to the plot and dialog, how is it working with Peter Dinklage one-​​on-​​one? “Well, he’s a very very fine actor, obviously. And extraordinarily silly too. He’s got balls of steel, he’ll go anywhere he has to. It’s wonderful watching him….he’s very brave, willing to go anywhere for a laugh.” Phillips relates the experience to working with Lane. “With both it’s still grounded. You’re not getting a cheap laugh, you’re getting something that’s real. It takes real investigation.”

THE IMAGINARY INVALID BY MOLIÈRE
LE MALADE IMAGINAIRE

Friday, July 13, 8 pm
Saturday, July 14, 3 and 8 pm
Sunday, July 15, 3 pm
Wednesday, July 18, 3 pm
Thursday, July 19, 8 pm
Friday, July 20, 8 pm
Saturday, July 21, 3 and 8 pm
Sunday, July 22, 3 pm
Tickets: $45

Directed by Erica Schmidt
Costumes by Andrea Lauer

Set Design by Laura Jellinek
Lighting by David Weiner

Fisher Center Box Office
10 am to 5 pm   |   Monday through Friday
845 – 758-​​7900  or, click here to purchase tickets

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