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Michael Tellinger

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"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Sunday, March 27, 2011

OSF 2011: The Imaginary Invalid

I bought a ticket to The Imaginary Invalid with some reluctance, as I didn't expect to enjoy it. Let me say at the outset that, with the exception of Aphra Behn, I'm not a big fan of anything Restoration; and hypochondria, however satirically treated, does not strike me as particularly fertile ground for wit, much less humor. But several people I know said it was a lot of fun and worth seeing for its Sixties spirit, so I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did, but with reservations.

A couple of these people did add, in a warning tone, that it's very "bawdy." Well, I wouldn't call this bawdy, exactly; that, to my mind, is a humor mostly based on forbidden sexual themes. What we have here is a kind of humor called "gross out," which is based on fear and loathing of all types of bodily functions (you know, the kind of stuff you see on TV when you aren't careful in your channel surfing). I hate that. 

But in the end, I bought a ticket because I'm a fan of OSF and the wide-ranging talent the festival offers, and even when I don't warm to a play I'm usually entertained or at least very interested. In this, the festival reflects Shakespeare's own universal range. My trust in OSF was justified and though I hated much of this play, I loved other parts of it and wouldn't want to have missed them. 


This adaptation is set in the 1960's, in a classic Parisian apartment that has gone insanely Mod. (Designer Christopher Acebo plays very cleverly on the spirit of  London Kings Road Sixties). To add my own element to this mix of centuries and locales, my review is more Bollywood than Shakespeare (the two have much in common): I liked the second half more than the first, and though you have to love Johnny Lever, his comedy is best taken in small doses. This Invalid is too heavily dosed. I know that's the point of the satire, but I got it with the first joke and didn't need a zillion more. But then, without that excess, it would lose its Restoration character. So in that sense the failure to appreciate the totality of this production is entirely my own.

The first act, which seems much longer than the second one, is the more difficult to endure if you aren't a fan of potty humor. For me, what redeemed this part of the experience was that I happened to attend a matinee, and the audience consisted mostly of teenage students out to enjoy themselves; they ate it up--they roared, they cheered, they screamed, they responded. The interplay between the cast and the audience was a joy, even as I cringed at the brand of humor they were responding to. It was like sitting through a whole play devoted (you'll only get this if you know Bollywood, but it's the closest I can come) to Johnny Lever's or Anupam Kher's most unbearable moments.

As I said, Shakespeare's plays are dotted with such moments, but few of them are quite so heavily weighted in that direction. An exception, maybe, is A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play that can go very wrong in the humor department if the balance isn't found. Shakespeare offers the means to balance it, by scripting the more airy humor of fairies and fantasy. Henry IV Part 1 also balances low humor and high thought, through the elegant structure of the play. As with the original, which had musical interludes, this take on The Imaginary Invalid aims for a similar balance, through the magic of music: Paul James Pendergrast's buoyant score is inspired by Phil Spector's wall-of-sound. The individual songs reference several different pop forms of the period, used to ingenious effect (my favorite moment was a fabulous Barry White sendup which also furthers the plot in a hilarious fashion) . The other winning elements of the production, for me, are charming choreography and very fine players.

Even the gross-out humor is somewhat (though not consistently enough, to my taste) redeemed by references to current political and social issues such as the awful state of health care in the US. (If there'd been more of that, I'd have liked it more.) And even the message of the play (that we choose whether to enjoy life or not - a facile assertion that becomes more questionable in the light of modern neurological science) was not entirely lost in the dazzling welter of showmanship.

As I said, I liked the second half much better than the first. It was more weighted with music, choreography, and story. And whatever the material, you have to root for a cast like this one.

Here's another review that pretty much agrees with my own mixed experience of the production. 

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