Monday, June 16, 2008
On the Road - in Washington DC
The Imaginary Invalid by Molière
In their 22-year history in the nation’s capital Michael Kahn and collaborators have created a theatre based on the classics, one that has no equal on this side of the Atlantic. Even the great British contemporary theatres must find these Americans hard to match. In April of 2007 I saw the Royal Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Kennedy Center one night, and on the next, the Americans’ Titus Andronicus in the much smaller and more traditional Landsburg Theatre on 5th street. Titus was the better play. And in my memory, their Washington Coriolanus of 2000 was a better production than that of the Royals in 2007. Eve Ziebert’s article on the competing presentations published in the Washington Post adroitly contrasted Shakespeare’s plays while tactfully omitting any direct comparison of the players.
Chicago has the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, out on downtown Navy Pier near the Ferris wheel, but it's a highly marketed, populist affair (the upcoming season includes "Willy Wonka" and their current Comedy of Errors puts Shakespeare's short early comedy into a dubious framework of a film company working during the London blitz -- amusing stuff but with a treacly overlay in the pre-war style of Shepperton Studios).
In Washington, however, Kahn has progressively attracted patronage of the Great and mostly Good, and last year the company opened a huge new theatre at the Harmon Center in downtown, just across from the former MCI center, home to sports events and circuses. They expanded their season from five to eight plays or more running drawn from the classical repertory (which stretches at times into the twentieth century). Each runs for a month or more. Currently you can attend Antony & Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, alternating in the Harmon Center, and from this past week, Molière’s Imaginary Invalid at the Landsburg, just two blocks away.
When we were season ticket holders back from 1997-2000, we always brought along our two children. In 1998 they were 14 and 11 years old – the youngest audience members by several decades. Although our younger one usually couldn’t stay awake past the third act, both were deeply impressed by the theatre. They are Shakespeare lovers today.
The Washington company offers an astonishing deal to subscribers under 30 years of age. Last year they charged only $120 for my daughter’s season ticket to the eight-play season – $15 a show, while full-price mid-week tickets at the box office cost $60 and up.
In addition to entertaining at a high level, the company offers the public a superb education about its plays. Their mail-out brochure for each play offers history, commentary, biographies of principal directors and players, and insights into the production and into the art of the theatre. For all there are Podcasts available on the website, along with videos, generally featuring the director and an academic expert exploring the play and the choices for the production.
Keith Baxter, director of the Imaginary Invalid, re-establishes the “new theatre” that Molière created in 1660s for Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King.” The farce gives a linear narrative – in this case, the intrigue is that of hypochondriac Arpagan to wed his tender daughter to a physician so as to guarantee “in-house” services for bleeding, enemas, and similarly ghastly treatments. This is the text that is regularly presented even today. But Baxter and the company provide as preface, interludes and celebratory coda graceful and amusing ballet, songs, and slapstick drawn directly from the Italian tradition of the commedia dell’arte. The show recreates in their imagination and ours the 4th performance of the piece at the court on February 17, 1674 – including the homages to the Sun King and at the last moment, the unexpected appearance of that regal figure onstage.
Rubber-faced René Auberjonois is a self-mocking delight as Molière playing one of his most famous characters. The actors’ diction is uniformly superb throughout, mime and business are subtle and so manifold that one could attend three nights in a row and not catch all the physical jokes. The broad style was perfectly appropriate – let’s call it Marx brothers done declamatory fashion in brilliant costumes and graced by acrobats.
The younger members of the family reported that a couple of 30-somethings seated in front of them got up and left abruptly during the first half (perhaps unwilling to stretch themselves beyond ‘Seinfeld’ -- maybe they should get their theatre at Chicago's Navy Pier). But the rest of us stayed and enjoyed it a great deal.