Molière, the famous 17th-century French playwright and satirist, collapsed during a performance of his play “The Imaginary Invalid” in 1673. He finished the show that night but died just a few hours later.
The irony of his death likely would have pleased Molière, and I suspect he would have been equally tickled by the zany antics and bathroom humor of “Invalid,” a modern adaptation of his final work that is currently running at Firehouse Theatre.
“Invalid” tells the story of an old, rich hypochondriac whose dream of free, unlimited medical care motivates him to promise his daughter’s hand in marriage to the son of a well-respected physician. Unbeknownst to him, however, his daughter has already chosen a lover to marry, and she and his outspoken maid have other plans. When the doctor visits with his son, hoping to solidify the nuptials, hilarity ensues.
For their adaptation, director Josh Chenard and dramaturg Jane Mattingly found inspiration in the work of another beloved farcical comedian, Mel Brooks. The Firehouse production alludes to several of Brooks’ films, including "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and "History of the World, Part I." The production also references another famous Mel -- Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and a plethora of other cartoon characters, using pre-show music and in-show sound effects audiences might remember from "Looney Toons" animated shorts.
Chenard and Mattingly have brought Molière into a modern context with these influences, plus a few humorous nods to modern political and social issues. The adaptation works well -- it’s funny and economical -- with only eight characters onstage instead of the 12 in the original script. And they managed to keep it all in mostly consistent verse, complete with metered lines and end rhymes.
The ensemble is incredible: fluid and funny, these actors work together like a well-oiled machine. Andrew Frida’s whiny take on Argan, the wealthy but miserly hypochondriac at the center of it all, is funny enough on its own, but he sometimes feels like the straight man in this production, surrounded by his wacky family. Donna Marie Miller is a delight as Toinette, his wisecracking maid who keeps the household running. Kirk Morton’s cross-dressing performance as the flirty, spotlight-hungry Beline, Argan’s gold-digger of a second wife, had audiences giggling the minute he took the stage. Allison Paige Gilman captures the all-consuming giddiness of young love as the starry-eyed and sex-crazed Angelica, daughter of Argan, and Jamar Jones is entertaining as the confused Cleante, her lover. Christopher Dunn is perfectly cast as Dr. Diaforus and Kenneth Putnam displays his mastery of physical and vocal comedy as the doctor’s dimwitted son, Thomas.
Although the program states that this production is set in the "late 19th-century-ish,” the set and props suggest something surreal. Chris Raintree’s set design, including a Tim Burton-esque, stretched-out double-door and checkerboard floors, feels dreamy and expressionist, not set in any particular time or place. Blair Rath’s chairs, especially the stylized, multi-functional wheelchair that is almost an appendage of Argan’s, have a steampunk feel that also seems disconnected to any realistic time or place. Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting serves the set, which doesn’t change, by setting the mood from scene to scene.
One of my favorite scenes is the improvised operetta within the play, which closes out the first act with a lighthearted song and dance. I also really enjoyed the offstage elements of this production, from fake physicals offered at the door, for which audience members receive a special prescription, to production-specific drinks available at the bar and Slash Coleman’s Laughter Yoga which precedes the show.
There are a couple of opportunities for audience participation and ample opportunities to laugh off a few calories -- 50 in 15 minutes, according to the program. With its modern context and references, “Invalid” delivers the laughter it prescribes as the best medicine in a world that can be comically absurd.
Firehouse Theatre’s “Invalid” runs until Sept. 29. Tickets cost $35. www.firehousetheatre.org.