In a new version by Richard Bean
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
At the Festival Theatre, August 18-October 14, 2016
Like William Hutt, his celebrated Stratford predecessor in the title role of Argan, Stephen Ouimette expresses the tools of his comic craft externally. In his case, these include a quavering voice, a quivering fury or befuddlement, a stooped back, a flat-footed shuffle, and a face with puffy bloodhound eyes that register absurd miserliness, eye-rolling rage, and stubborn folly. Whether lying in a big bed in his ruffled nightgown soiled by his bowel disorder, or sitting officiously in a chair, he allows his self-absorption to waver according to the tallies of bills for enemas and medicine bottles. Physical maladies—mostly imagined—are music to his mind, and the worse the diagnosis, the greater his ecstasy for misery: “I’m incredibly and sensationally not well.” The only rival to his hypochondriac obsession is his inveterate desire to have a physician in the family because this would mean free ministration and medicine. So he will marry off his beautiful daughter Angelique (graceful Shannon Taylor) to the ridiculously bewigged, powdered, rouged, and buckled sot Thomas Diafoirerhoea, rather than allow her to be wed to her beloved Cleante (Luke Humphrey), a handsome youth of splendid good health. The maiden has no real option: submit to her father’s heartless will or be dispatched to a nunnery. Not even the tart, sage intercession of Argan’s busybody maid Toinette (a spirited Brigit Wilson) or the sober, clear-eyed advice of his brother Beralde (calm, collected, eloquent Ben Carlson) seems to matter. Argan’s new gold-digging wife Beline (a deliciously wicked Trish Lindstrom) would be utterly delighted if Angelique dared her father and is disinherited as a consequence because Beline would inherit all his money and property.
Of course, things get complicated, and Argan eventually learns his humbling lesson painfully (though Ouimette’s vulnerability as the character is less palpable than his broad comedy), Beline is exposed, and Angelique wins her Cleante. But there is a wry, severe trope in Richard Bean’s version of Moliere’s satire on medical humbug and the fools who subscribe to it. The trope comes at the end, unfolding as part of a play-within-a-play. All the elaborate trappings that director Antoni Cimolino deploys—the theatrical warmups; the comedies-ballets; the absurd chorus of black-clad medical charlatans singing pig Latin and English verse while wielding terrifying clamps, saws, and enema injector; and the sudden meta-theatrical ending where Argan morphs into the dying Moliere—are meant to add to the potency of the satire and redeem the broad frenzied farce. In this instance, Cimolino is clearly following in the line of the late Jean Gascon and the late Richard Monette, both of whom had irrepressible Gallic zest for comic excess. Most of the time, the approach works, but success comes at a price. The prologue goes on a bit too long, as does the introduction of Louis XIV and his elaborate chair facing the stage antics.
This is a calculated device. Moliere was probably a hypochondriac himself, and his sharp mockery of the medical profession earned him the cold scorn of the very targets he attacked. On the night of his fourth performance as Argan, Moliere suffered a serious heart attack and died later that evening, after the doctors were unable or unwilling to save him. And so, Stephen Ouimette’s Argan collapses and passes away in the big bed that dominates the stage most of the time, as the mood and temperature of the play change. Cimolino’s staging makes the irony emphatic. The question is whether this sudden trope trips up the comic gears, undoing all the fun or whether audiences will appreciate the meta-theatrical innovation.