It was clearly a dicey proposition for Berkeley Rep to tackle the work of 17th-century French playwright Molière. Even if his plays are required reading for all undergraduate theater majors, they’re still four hundred years old, and atypical for a company that normally specializes in contemporary material. Moreover, the particular play in question, Le Médecin malgré lui (A Doctor in Spite of Himself) is an ensemble piece, meaning it calls for a large cast and a lot of choreography. The Rep will occasionally try its hand at a robust, overblown production if there’s a big name attached (i.e., Green Day or Sarah Ruhl); this one, conceived by Yale School of Drama teacher (and master clown) Christopher Bayes, doesn’t quite fit the mold.
But it’s a fabulous play. Bayes, who directed this production and also adapted the script with help from Steven Epp, managed to contemporize the dialogue but preserve a lot of winking elements from Commedia dell’arte. Thus, it has the puff and pomp of a comedy staged in Louis XIV’s court, but it’s also rife with election-year humor, dick jokes, and pop culture references. Some might even criticize the play for being too self-consciously modern (one audience member called it the “dad-trying-to-be-cool” phenomenon), but that’s forgivable for a director trying to mollify a progressive audience in Berkeley.
What’s most conspicuous, from the beginning of Doctor, is the sheer number of people involved in the production. The first two to emerge are the musicians, Greg C. Powers (who plays tuba, trombone, and ukulele) and Robertson Witmer (who plays accordion, clarinet, and drums). They step onstage playing their instruments and retreat to a far corner, content to be furnishings in the room. Next come the woodsman Sganarelle (played by Epp) and his saucy wife, Martine (Justine Williams), who appear first in puppet form, then pop out, Punch-and-Judy-style, from behind the theater. (The puppets, designed by Matt Saunders, look exactly like their human counterparts.) In the original text, Sganarelle is an alcoholic layabout; in this version, he’s aggressive but sprightly, prone to verbal jousting and incredibly quick on the draw. Naturally, the whole idea of “wood whacking” isn’t lost on either character, and so many phallic jokes gush out in the first scene, you begin to wonder if the whole play is just going to be one long string of double entendres.
In a way, it is. But Bayes and Epp also hew to the original plot, and even preserve the political sentiment behind it — which easily applies to modern society, too. In Le Médecin, Sganarelle is mistaken for a doctor, and asked to help cure a young aristocratic woman who has lost her voice, probably to protest her father’s dismissal of her lover. Bayes’ and Epp’s Doctor preserves all the themes of the original folk tale: star-crossed love, class conflict, mistaken identity, quackery, and what writer Peter Brooks would call “the text of muteness.” Sganarelle is accosted by two strange men in the woods, persuaded — under duress — of his own charlatan powers, and dragged off to the house of Géronte (Allen Gilmore), father of the lovely, silent Lucinde (Renata Friedman). He’s smart enough to see that her “illness” is actually a form of civil disobedience.
That seemingly sparse storyline had a strong political cast in Molière’s day: He was poking fun at medical conceits related to “the humors”; a critic of the modern-day medical system might have similarly disparaging things to say about pharmaceuticals. Yet the adaptors also managed to lard their Doctor with modern signposts — including jokes about GOP candidates, reprisals of Sir Mix-a-Lot or Jay-Z, and even a barb about the city of Orinda. The script moves forward at such a ferocious pace that you wonder how even a highly literate audience member would catch all those references. Yet the opening night crowd belly-laughed all the way through Doctor, which augurs well for the rest of the run.
Molière actually isn’t considered a stuffy old playwright — not in the traditional sense, at least — and Berkeley Rep isn’t the first local company to revive his work. Central Works did its own contemporized version of The Misanthrope in 2002 and 2009, and Shotgun Players tried its hand at The Miser in 2004. What each adaptation shows is that the French playwright had the same combination of piquant humor and shrewdness that made Shakespeare indispensable, not to mention he trafficked in universal themes. Epp and Bayes perceived those traits easily; their play occasionally devolves into slapstick gags, but it’s also buoyed by stunningly hilarious actors. (Gilmore, in particular, traded dignity for a few cheap laughs.) Risky? Yes. But sometimes a little risk can yield a big payoff.