Saturday, July 23, 2011

Molière at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland, Oregon, July 20, 2011—
MOLIERE'S COMEDIES ARE ALWAYS welcome, no matter the production. The jokes are always old, always funny. The politics are always old, always relevant. The productions, at least the ones I've seen over the years, are generally over the top, occasionally freighted with gimmickry, sometimes framed (in both senses of the word) with too much Concept, but Molière grits his teeth and plays right through, always triumphing in the end.

We've seen our share of Imaginary Invalid lately: along with Tartuffe and The Miser, it seems to speak to the contemporary American sensibility, at least as viewed by theater producers. Of course many, probably most of these producers feel it necessary to help contemporary audiences make the leap to Seventeenth-century France, and so we get productions like the one we saw Tuesday night, with musical interpolations inspired by Motown, and jokes about death panels and public options.

It won't surprise you to read that I have profound misgivings about these attempts at "updating." After all, Molière's relevant because he writes about eternal aspects of the human condition. I always have the nagging feeling that concentrating on the locally specific may detract from the universally constant, which is of course a greater value.

(And there are the occasions when directorial concentration on one aspect, say the comic scenes in a Shakespeare history play, comes at the cost of attention to another, say the serious scenes; throwing the entire play out of balance. This happened last night in Henry IV, Part Two: but that's not the subject at hand; I'll touch on the Shakespeare plays here later on.)

As it turns out, this Imaginary Invalid works beautifully. Molière provided his original play with intermèdes (entr'actes, interludes) and dance sequences, and the OSF production is probably right to think Aretha Franklin is closer to the contemporary sensibility than is Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who provided the original score. (And in any case, apparently only four songs have survived to our time.) Molière's comedies involve stock figures from the comic tradition stretching back centuries, and grow out of the commedia dell'arte tradition, which specialized in spicing material with topical jokes and allusions, blending the classical and vernacular — exactly as is the intention of such "updates" as this Imaginary Invalid.

We saw the play in the temporary tent-pavilion that's been installed in Lithia Park, just down from OSF's outdoor Elizabethan Theater, to accommodate plays originally scheduled for the indoor Bowmer Theater, now closed for structural repairs. (The total cost to the festival of these emergency repairs is estimated at over $2 million, according to a story in the local newspaper.) The tent's acoustics require the cast to wear microphones: this has hurt other plays, in my opinion, but The Imaginary Invalid less than others. Every member of the cast seemed perfectly cast and evenly in command of the role, and given the need to relocate the production the technical and scenic aspects of the play were outstanding. (Full credits here)

• Molière: The Imaginary Invalid, adapted by Oded Gross and Tracy Young, music by Paul James Prendergast, directed by Tracy Young: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through November 6, 2011.

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