Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Guest Reviewer: Dan Johnson Speaks About "Invalid's" Opening Weekend!

This weekend EMU Theatre was proud to present the opening of our hilarious contemporary version of the 16th century farce, Imaginary Invalid.

We asked one of EMU Theatre's finest writers and performers, Dan Johnson (pictured seated in the image below), to tell us his thoughts on this outrageous performance. Johnson is a grad student at EMU and has appeared in several EMU Theatre productions such as Hamlet, Nora/Julie, and Bud, Not Buddy. He is also known for writing amazing cringe-worthy comedies and dramas for The Student One Act Performances and Sad Tire Theatre. To sum it up...We like Dan. We think he's brilliant. Here's what he had to say about Imaginary Invalid...

"From the very beginning of EMU’s production of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, as the audience watches three half-naked, goat-legged satyrs stalk onstage, “baa”-ing lasciviously around a gentle shepherdess, one might be forgiven for wondering if something “special” is being piped through the airways of Quirk Theatre.

When the masked goat-men slide into position as doo-wop backup singers, however, it becomes clear that, although no illicit substances are involved, all in attendance are in for one hell of a trip.

Ostensibly a comedy about “farts, hypochondria, love and idiocy,” EMU’s production is all that and much, much more, with director Lee Stille (working from a contemporary translation/adaptation by James Magruder) guiding a cast of enthusiastic performers through a frenetic and colorful kitchen-sink (and toilet seat) world filled with bizarre characters, even more bizarre plot twists, and “No, really – am I on something?” sequences of music, dancing, banter, and physical comedy. With all the diversions and detours Invalid takes, it can be easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on plot-wise (or even what’s going on, period – a classic of French theatre? A sexy, sexy 1960’s Bollywood dance party? Just what are those goat-things doing, anyway?), but the thing to remember is that this show, like many farces, functions like a giant wind-up toy – all an audience member needs to do for maximum enjoyment is just sit back and watch it go.

The eponymous invalid, Argan (embodied with great relish by James Walrod) is a blustery, incorrigible old fool who lives, mostly chair-bound, in his manor, seeking all manner of quack “doctors” and “physicians” to treat his myriad (nonexistent) infirmities with highly implausible (and alarmingly enema-centered) “cures.” Doted on by his daughters, and especially by his indulgent second wife (who plans to dupe the geezer into rewriting his will and leaving her everything), Argan nevertheless is eternally confounded by his quick-witted, sharp-tongued maid Toinette (Victoria Morgan), seemingly the only person in all of Paris willing to stand up to his ridiculous claims of illness. Complications arise when Argan plans to marry his eldest daughter, Angélique (Charlotte Frutig) off to an alarmingly idiotic soon-to-be-doctor (so that he can have access to free health care), unaware that she has already set her heart on the strapping, if slightly silly, Cléante (Derek Ridge). Will she, with the help of the ever-resourceful Toinette, be able to stop her father’s plans and marry her true love? Will Argan’s wife manage to send Angélique off to a convent and snag a fortune for herself? Might Argan’s more reasonable brother, Béralde (Chris Sweet) succeed in talking some sense into him? And seriously…is one of the masked goat-men playing a conga drum?

If Walrod’s joyfully melodramatic performance as the enema-obsessed Argan is the heart of The Imaginary Invalid, then Victoria Morgan’s clever, no-nonsense Toinette is the soul (and almost certainly the engine) – from the moment she appears onstage, Morgan is a force to be reckoned with, more than capable of handling her own against Walrod, especially during a late-show scene in which Toinette, through the miracle of quick-change, appears as a doctor herself in a last-ditch attempt to show Argan the error of his ways.

 Watching Walrod and Morgan together is a delight, as is watching Walrod together with Sweet, who wisely (and, considering all the other craziness going on throughout, probably not easily) underplays Béralde, throwing Argan’s desperate foolishness into even sharper relief.

 Truly (and remarkably, for a show of this size), there are too many amazing performances, comedic bits and comic turns to mention all by name (especially during the musical interludes), but shout-outs must also go to Caleb Knutson and Craig Draheim, whose respective performances as Thomas Diafoirus and Polchinelle were scene-stealing mini-marvels of offbeat physicality, vocal work and comic rhythm.

Also uniformly impressive is the technical work on display, from set designer John Charles’ imaginative, perspective-skewing manor to sound designer Eric Hohnke’s amusing (and frequently disgusting) array of crashes, flatulence, and other unusual sound work. As well, Jennifer Graham’s choreography, especially in tandem with Jeromy Hopgood’s highly stylized, kaleidoscopic lighting design, gives the musical interludes much of their punch and disorientating energy. Special mention, however, must go to Melanie Schuessler and her astounding costume design. For sheer scale alone, it’s hard to imagine how many long nights, broken sewing machines and pricked fingers Schuessler and her crew went through, but the end result is a truly amazing, dizzying amount of costume wizardry that is not only immaculate in detail, but also, in every instance, a unique commentary on and extension of each character on stage.

Director Stille’s approach to The Imaginary Invalid is interesting; while very obviously the product of a good deal of time and research, the end result feels remarkably unhinged and anything-goes, almost improvisational at times. Choosing not to place the show in its original timeframe (toward the end of the 17th century), he instead brings together elements of various different time periods, styles and cultures, blending them all together with the goal of maximum comic absurdity. While, at times, such periodic/stylistic/cultural confusion seems a bit overwhelming to the play itself, there’s no doubt that the approach taken is much more likely to connect with a contemporary audience (especially a college audience) than a more formal, “traditional” approach might be able to. (As well, Stille is to be given credit for drawing such uniformly excellent performances out of his cast – the maxim about “no small parts, only small actors” is on full display.)

All in all, The Imaginary Invalid is as successful a season-opener as could be imagined for EMU Theatre. Far from being a stuffy, tedious “comedy,” in the hands of all involved this production is a fresh, hilarious modernization of a classic theatrical comedy."

 You still have ONE MORE WEEKEND to see Imaginary Invalid! Purchase your tickets NOW!

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