Kinetic Theatre’s World Premiere of “The Illustrious Invalid”
There is a saying in the world of martial arts that “Control is the mother of speed,” and it could be said that in the world of theater, control – in the form of precise writing, acting, and directing – is the mother of farce. In both cases, when speed is the sole objective, things become sloppy, blurred, and disaster is usually the ultimate consequence. This may seem counterintuitive when one watches a Bruce Lee or a Charlie Chaplin performance, but if you observe closely, the greatest mayhem is always engendered by the greatest precision.
Kinetic Theatre Company’s world premiere of “The Illustrious Invalid” is a masterful underscoring of this principle. It’s daring, innovative, and hilarious, but most of all so precise in its dramatic components that you might not notice, for example, how well-written it is, especially as it’s emulative of the work of the great French playwright Molière, and thus, one might assume, would suffer by comparison. But it doesn’t in the least. And this is where things get interesting.
The playwright, Simon Bradbury, utilizes the historical events surrounding Molière’s final play, “The Imaginary Invalid” (1673), and therefore creates – in a very Shakespearean sense – a play-within-the-play, or in this case, literally, the play-behind-the-play, as it imagines what was happening backstage during Molière’s last performance as an actor, in what would turn out to be the last moments of his life, for he collapsed at the end of this show and died a few hours later.
This was a case of art imitating life, as Molière likely had the premonition of his own death — suffering from tuberculosis as he was — and may have written a play in which the protagonist exhibited a similar malady, allowing him to cough and spit on stage, entirely in character.
The irony being, of course, that with his unique genius he made the tragedy of this into comedy. But the irony deepens in this production — like an image reflected between two mirrors — as playwright Bradbury plays the role of Molière in his own play, thus creating a play-within-the-play-within-the-play, making it a case of art imitating life imitating art. Like the philosophical conundrum of the chicken and the egg, which is the true precursor – life experience (as Aristotle believed) or artistic expression (as Oscar Wilde believed) – is a dilemma that Bradbury joyfully explores, and thankfully never resolves.
But do not mistake “The Illustrious Invalid” as a mere case of imitation; this is praxis, not pastiche. Although Bradbury humbly claims in the program notes that he “tried to mimic Molière’s own style of physical as well as verbal humor,” he creates something original that far exceeds the limitations of mimesis. For example, listen to the brilliant, guttural music in these lines early in the first act, “It’s a spot of blood, woman. A bobbit of sputem. All this clatter over a gob of coloured phlegm. Now give me that rag and clear off.”
Much of the dialogue – written in modern English, not a parody of baroque French – flies by: clotted, trenchant, and witty, but it’s never garbled, rarely stepped on (exceptional for an opening night performance), and recalls the verbal acrobatics of cinematic screwball comedies such as Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday.”
Bradbury and the rest of the cast are all masterful comedic actors, and are guided, artfully, by director Andrew Paul, who tilts the arc of this production upward with subtle escalation, so that the farcical intensity keeps rising but never boils over . . . until it should, at the end. To use a stand-up term, the jokes and sight gags kill, and never lose their intensity over the course of the show. At one point the woman seated next to me grabbed my arm in a paroxysm of laughter, and then apologized after she had composed herself. In fact, there is so much audience laughter at times that it drowns out the actors, like waves coming too fast. An audience losing physical control, or laughing too loudly, are nice problems to have.
One of the recurring bits – perhaps the central metaphor of the play – is the need to give Bradbury’s character an enema, which may sound distasteful to describe, but to watch is pure ebullience, as we are in the bawdy, Gallic land of Molière, not the decorous, English world of Shakespeare. Thus, the opening of Molière’s bowels becomes analogous to the opening of heaven to his soul, a sublime albeit scatological conceit that makes sense in this repressive, Catholic age when freedom of expression was constantly blocked by multiple institutions, be it theatrical custom, the Church, or the monarchy.
Joanna Strapp, adroitly cast as Molière’s wife, Armande, looks like she stepped directly from the Ancien Régime onto the set. She’s able to shift from the coquettish seducer of the young Baron (Michael Patrick Trimm) to the morally (albeit financially) minded savior of her husband’s soul with mirthful intensity.
David Whalen, in multiple roles constituting a kind of gestalt performance – each of his four characters complain of not getting the stage-time they deserve – declares as the character La Grange, “In between playing four roles, all of them thankless; not a rounded character among them?” To which Molière replies, “I’ll write you a lead for our next venture.” And this kind of rimshot banter – often directed at the house in a purposeful breaking of the fourth wall – is so well integrated into the play’s normal dialogue that the audience itself becomes a character, and hence is endowed with a participatory feeling, which engenders even more laughter as this back-and-forth escalates. This is theater at its best, and extremely rare to behold.
Tony Bingham, as the conflicted priest Levere, raises the level of simmering chaos the moment he enters the stage. It’s as if he moves in a cloud of his own manic ether. He’s not overly histrionic; rather, it feels like he went to acting school on some remote island where he was never exposed to conventional dramatic clichés. Derdriu Ring and Matt DeCaro also offer strong performances, the latter as an actor who plays a doctor and is adamant that he knows the best way to cure Molière of his illness – the aforementioned enema remedy– which leads to frenetic physical machinations.
The set, designed by Johnmichael Bohach, is more evocative than realistic, which complements a play in which the imaginary aspects must necessarily flesh out the skeletal vestiges of historical fact. Ironically, the audience is facing both the front of the real stage, and the back of the imaginary stage – becoming a kind of chorus, in the manner of ancient Greek theater.
Gary Bower’s lighting design is muted and crepuscular as it would be in this candle-lit age, imbuing a chiaroscuro background that makes the absurdity of the antics even more striking. And sound designer Mark Whitehead’s anachronistic musical interludes comprising Cream, Led Zepplin, and The Beatles (“Here Comes the Sun” for the entrance of Louis XIV is slyly appropriate) add whimsical flavor to the brew of madness pervading the show.
Special credit should be given to Katherine Mikula Wineman for the prop designs, especially the Musketeer sword, and the enema device, which looks like a small Sidewinder missile, and instigates some of the most outlandish manifestations of physical comedy I’ve seen since the Carol Burnett Show.
Generally, plays that are derivative of other plays are less successful than the works they’re based upon, but “The Illustrious Invalid” manages to pay homage to Molière and his age, without compromising its own originality. Like all first-rate theater, you’ll be carried away by the experience without realizing how well-constructed that experience was – which is all too rare in this age.
# # #
“THE ILLUSTRIOUS INVALID” continues through June 26th at City Theater in the South Side, $25 – $45. 412-431-2489 or www.kinetictheatre.org