A Doctor in Spite of Himself, Berkeley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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‘A Doctor in Spite of Himself’

By Molière
Adapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes
Directed by Christopher Bayes
Berkeley Repertory Theater
Feb. 10-March 25, 2012

Have you heard the one about the critic who was born without a funny bone? Well, maybe not the total absence of one but certainly stunted in growth. Poor girl, she never learned to appreciate the greatness of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, slapstick, vaudeville or even — gasp — commedia dell’arte. Sounds like a case for a physician.

Unfortunately, the medic-in-residence at Berkeley Rep these days is not exactly what the doctor ordered for this rare condition. The over-the-top rewrite of Molière’s “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” (written for money and, by his own admission, not the great French playwright’s finest work) has its amusing moments, but it’s full of slapstick (there’s an actual Punch and Judy show staged in an outhouse), swinging bosoms, pratfalls and shtick. I’m afraid it merely exacerbated the critic’s already critical condition.

It’s impeccably performed, having come to these parts by way of Seattle’s Intiman Theater and Yale Repertory, and star/co-adapter Steven Epps is, as he proved in former performances with the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune, something of a comic genius. But 90 minutes of watching him get hit over the head with a stick or peer down a maiden’s décolletage is not my personal idea of a roaring good time.

The slender plot is the old commedia tale of an avaricious old fool who is tricked out of his daughter with the aid of a common varlet. The varlet here is Sganarelle (Epps), a drunken woodcutter who is constantly at war with his nagging wife Jacqueline (Julie Briskman). Domestic violence must have been funnier in Moliere’s day and they go at it with great gusto. It’s made more palatable – and interesting – by the Punch and Judy gimmick, with the real actors emerging from behind the aforementioned outhouse to continue the fray. In a scheme to get even with her husband, Jacqueline gets him mis-identified as a doctor who is enlisted to cure a rich man’s daughter of muteness.

The old miser, Geronte is Allen Gilmore and his daughter, wonderfully dressed in Goth garb (costumes by Kristin Fiebig) is played by Renata Friedman, who doubles as the puppeteer. Lucinde, the daughter, is only pretending to be mute so she won’t have to participate in a financially advantageous marriage. She really is in love with “the fabulous Leandre,” a kind of effete rock star, hysterically portrayed by Chivas Michael. Outstanding among the supporting players is Jacob Ming-Trent as one of Geronte’s flunkies (especially when he dons a gold angel’s dress and sings a powerhouse solo). And Justine Williams, as a maid who catches Sganarelle’s eye (mostly down the front of her dress) has a wonderful way with a vacuum cleaner.

There is a lot of music in the show, from pop and rock snippets to full-fledged arias and madrigals and it’s very good. The book sends up everything from the Republican candidates to the medical profession to the theatrical conventions of Moliere’s day and even our own (there is an extended bow to David Mamet in a speech using his favorite word, perhaps not wisely but too well). Ah yes, in spite of the puppets and the slapstick, don’t bring the kiddies. “A Doctor” is as bawdy and crude as they come. I just wish I had found it funnier but, that could be due to my lack of a properly functioning funny bone.

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