'The Imaginary Invalid'

By Jerome Stuart Nichols | Life Editor
Added October 16, 2011 at 7:41 pm

What does a mime, a hypochondriac, an enema, a satyr, a saxophone and Bollywood/hip-hop fusion dance number have in common? Other than being the visuals from the worst acid trip ever, they’re also a few of the odd and multifarious features of “The Imaginary Invalid.”

“The Imaginary Invalid” is the latest production by Eastern Michigan University’s theater department. It opened Oct. 14 to laughs and a packed house. This Lee Stille-directed production of “Invalid” is a modern adaption of the French comedy classic “Le Malade Imaginaire” by Molière, which originally debuted in 1673.

“Invalid” tells the story of Aargon (James Walrod), an egregious hypochondriac who, in an attempt to secure himself a lifetime of free healthcare, decides to marry off his beautiful daughter to a soon-to-be doctor. But the romantic desires of his daughter, Angélique (Charlotte Frutig), and the monetary desires of his gold-digging femdom of a wife, Béline (Alanna Allen), put a crimp in those plans.

If I had to use one word to describe this play it would be unconventional. “The Imaginary Invalid” is a play unlike any other I have seen. It features the undeniably odd to American sensibilities and conventions of French humor mixed with a few drops of American and British comedy fundamentals, along with strange musical numbers bordering on absurd.

Originally, “The Imaginary Invalid” was meant to be a comédie ballet, which is French genre of play that combines a standard play with interludes containing music and dance. This adaptation by James Magruder brings it to us the way French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière, intended.

Although “Invalid” has musical numbers, don’t expect a musical. The numbers serve as an introduction, interlude and finale rather than story support or plot progression. I’d be eternally grateful if someone could rationalize how a group of satyrs rocking out with brass instruments, a jester serenading the audience with public domain love songs or a Bollywood dance number with hip-hop influences progresses the plot.

Jesters, satyrs and Bollywood may make “The Imaginary Invalid” seem weird or confusing … and it is. There were numerous times throughout the first act I was more confused than entertained. The vintage French sensibility and seemingly random assortment of characters and interludes is definitely not for everyone, but it is for some.

I may have spent the majority of act one more confused than the time I accidentally attended a 300-level physics course in my first year at EMU. But that by no means should take away from how much fun I had with act two.

Going into “Invalid” with only a passing knowledge of 17th-century French theater led me to believe it to be something it definitely wasn’t. Paired with the fact I resisted adapting my expectations kept me from truly appreciating “Invalid” for what it is. By the time act two rolled around, the charming characters and absurdly bright color pallate had forced me from my comfort zone and into “Invalid” inglorious, imaginary world.

One of the strongest hands grasping at my collar and pulling me out of my shell was Victoria Morgan’s portrayal of Toinette, Aargon’s sassy and somewhat maternal maid/caregiver. I’m quite aware of the scripted nature of Toinette’s quips, quirk and eccentricities. But Morgan’s dedication to the character, comedic timing and energy put a decidedly fresh spin on an admittedly shallow character archetype.

Another bright spot among “Invalid’s” many was the goofy, dimwitted and rather unfortunate Thomas Diafoirus, who is brought to life by Caleb Knutson. Diafoirus is the soon-to-be doctor to whom Aargon has offered Angelique’s hand to. Describing him as awkward or out-of-it would be putting it politely; Diafoirus is bordering on mentally handicapped. Knutson’s perfect deadpan delivery and physical transformation through prosthetics, costume and makeup really sells the part.

Not every character was as exquisitely channeled as Toinette and Thomas Diafoirus. Aargon’s wife Béline, as portrayed by Alanna Allen, was far from the highlight of the show. Allen wasn’t bad by any means, but I didn’t feel that she connected, committed or elevated the role with the same gusto as the rest of the cast. I’m not sure if being outshined by a hilarious cast is much of a fault, but it’s worth a mention.

Overall, the EMU theater department’s production of “The Imaginary Invalid” is quite hilarious and enjoyable. While the sensibilities might stray beyond the well-traveled path, it still leads to a good time.

Catch this charming medical commentary as it continues its run with shows scheduled for Oct. 20-22 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 16 at 2 p.m. in Quirk Theater.

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