OREM — It never ceases to amaze me that Molière’s plays are still ridiculously funny, even after being translated from four-hundred year-old French. And when I say “funny,” I don’t mean the kind of passable humor that requires you to endure a few hours’ of obligatory culture in order to get a few laughs. I’m talking about the kind of funny that can get a person laughing to tears, and Utah Valley University’s production of The Imaginary Invalid is a perfect specimen of Molière’s comedy that’s still apropos today.
The Imaginary Invalid is the story of Argan (Howard Fullmer), a hypochondriac whose wealth and vague sense of unease keep at least two doctors and a pharmacist in business. Until now, his family has tolerated his benign delusions, but when he proposes that his daughter Angélique (Samantha Pace) marry Dr. Thomas Diafoirus (Adam Hutchinson) so he can take advantage of the family discount, they can sit idly by no more. The maid-servant Toinette (Coral Chambers) quickly hatches a cunning scheme that will put a stop to the marriage, freeing Angélique to wed Cléante (Jacob Porter), the man she really loves.
Meanwhile, Argan’s second wife, Béline (Zoe Wilder), has a scheme of her own underway. Béline is a wicked stepmother of sorts, or what modern parlance would term a gold-digger. Her primary goal is getting Argan to scratch his daughters from his will, leaving everything to her. Before long everyone has a two-faced plot, and, appropriately, many of them involve ludicrous disguises.
Along the way, Molière takes advantage of the comedy found in time- and culture-transcending foibles. The farcical script points out the ludicrous in human nature, poking fun at laziness, selfishness, and gullibility, among other things, while still making the afflicted characters lovable. Howard Fullmer played Argan as the self-centered father who was so oblivious to the true nature of events that he was endearing rather than infuriating. Coral Chambers’s Toinette portrayed a perfect combination of feistiness and sympathy toward her master and his family as she schemed to unite Angélique with her devoted Cléante together. Speaking of Cléante, Jacob Porter played him with such bumbling earnestness and flawless comic timing that I was always happy to have him onstage.
Even though I was against their characters in principle, I couldn’t get enough of Zoe Wilde as Béline or Adam Hutchinson as Thomas Diafoirus. They were both completely ludicrous, though in very different ways. Béline outwardly doted on her husband and never left his room without hefting about a dozen saccharine pet names at him. But from the very start, the transparency of her falsehood made it hilarious where it could have easily been piercingly irritating. Adam Hutchinson played Thomas Diafoirus as a simpering doofus, preening and reciting speeches at his father’s (Jason Evans) behest.
This play was pretty delightful from beginning to end, but the gypsy-led interludes were certainly a high point. The gypsies engaged the audience as soon as they stepped into the theater—telling jokes, playing music, even declaring one audience member the King of France—and occasionally broke up the action with a song. Molière’s script included several comedic musical numbers, and this production took the liberty of sprucing them up with some very funny references to modern medicine and culture (especially through the very jaunty music for this show was written by David Tinney and Rob Moffat).
Along with updating the musical numbers, the humor in UVU’s production also relied on some innovative physical humor (from director Laurie Harrop-Purser) as well as impressive prop (Don Parker) and set (Casey Price) design to keep the audience visually engaged when a scene might have otherwise felt a bit text-heavy. The play was set almost entirely inside Argon’s home, but occasionally the stage rotated to reveal a garden (whose wall was dappled with pill bottle shrubbery) that was generally full of gypsies. Besides the pre-show audience engagement, the gypsies occasionally broke the fourth wall, always to effective comedic effect. Every addition to Molière’s play fit so well with the spirit and flow of the script that I had to go home and check the script afterward to figure out which jokes were added later and which were in the original.
I’d recommend UVU’s production of The Imaginary Invalid to anyone. I laughed the entire time and would see it again in a heartbeat. The only time I was at all disappointed with this show was when I went home and learned that Molière was actually deathly ill when he played Argon in the show’s original run. True story: He collapsed from a fit of coughing during but stayed in character until the end of the show, then died of pulmonary tuberculosis a few hours later. What I’m trying to say here is that Molière was a genius so devoted to a joke that even his death was tinged in dramatic irony. That kind of dedication is definitely worth your time.