Slapstick and silliness reign supreme on the UNCW stage, with a new take on a classic French farce. Molière’s “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” will open the Department of Theatre’s season at UNCW this weekend, with raucous fun thanks to a modern translation that never before has been performed.
Molière’s legacy as a playwright spans a number of comedies. Though he preferred tragedies, he became most well-known for his farcical productions, like “Le Misanthrope” (The Misanthrope), “L’École des Femmes”(The School for Wives), “Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur “ (Tartuffe or the Hypocrite), “L’Avare” (The Miser), “Le Malade Imaginaire” (The Imaginary Invalid), and “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (The Bourgeois Gentleman).
“The Doctor,” which will be directed by professor Anne Berkeley, is one of many Molière’s works that follows the misadventures of Sganarelle (Bruno Rose), an uneducated peasant. Originally, Molière himself starred as the character.
When Sganarelle’s wife (Arianna Tysinger) becomes fed up with his slovenly ways, she convinces a wealthy family that he is the greatest doctor in the world. So, he is forced to act the part and is brought in to cure Lucinde (Ashley Burton), a girl who feigns muteness to delay a marriage arranged by her father (Luke Robbins). Lucinde devises a plan to be with her lover, Leandre (Kaleb Edwards Edley). Sganarelle makes the most of his enforced medical license and writes phony prescriptions, flippantly unconcerned with whether his patients even survive, because, as Rose puts it, “He gets paid either way.”
UNCW’s production is the first to use a new, unpublished translation by Arne Zaslove, a “world renowned teacher of clowning and physical comedy,” according to Berkeley. “Other translations felt very stilted to me,” she says, “When I read [Zaslove’s], I loved it right away, and I thought that the audience and actors could relate to it.”
Zaslove’s script stays true to the farcical tone but updates the language to appeal to a modern audience. Whereas an older text would use the word “egads,” today’s version translates into: “What the hell, man!”
Because it was unpublished, Berkeley says she and the actors have had ample opportunity to improvise. Berkeley depended a lot on the commedia dell’arte form of “lazzi”—essentially meaning short bits of exaggerated comedic frenzy, which pepper the play to lessen extensive dialogue. Delirious struggles run rampant, such as two characters taking an exorbitant amount of time to put on something simple like a coat, or the doctor running through the audience as an angry mob follows, led by his wife.
“My job is to get them to exaggerate the physicality,” Berkeley explains, “and encourage them to develop the character through their own instincts.”
Sloan Friedman, who plays Sganarelle’s nosy neighbor, Robert, says the two-dimensional character as a real person without inhibitions. “When there’s so much stress, you want to go crazy, but as humans we hold that in,” Friedman says. “These characters don’t hold anything in.”
As a result the cast is in constant motion: They run, jump, flail, dance, and roll around the stage at a nonstop pace, with increasing absurdity. At the end of rehearsal actors lay on the stage floor, out of breath, some complaining of bruises sustained during their fights and falls.
“When everyone else is already at that level, it’s hard not to match it,” says Emily Kaitlyn Hunter, who plays the doctor’s lover, Jacqueline.
While the play epitomizes nonsensical splendor, it manages to satirize the medical profession. Molière’s biting wit often criticized the profession and the harshness of the practices—such as bloodletting—all of which were mainstays at the time. In his 1673 play “Le Malade Imaginaire,” the Beralde quips: “Medicine is only for those who are fit enough to survive the treatment as well as the illness.” Though “The Doctor” isn’t as scathing as some of Molière’s work, it still lampoons the social etiquette involved with undergoing such procedures despite the obvious adverse reactions. “It’s appropriate for our time,” Berkeley remarks. “We have so many problems with healthcare now—the cost and the way it’s run.”
The set appropriately looks as cartoonish as the action—almost like something taken from a child’s coloring book and blown up to life size. Trees and hollowed-out barns seem like they’re drawn from a 5-year-old. Even the props have an animation feel; Rose carries a wood board painted to look like a doctor’s satchel. The characters wear colorful high-top chucks along with neon petticoats, lest they stand out from their equally garish background. The cast describes it: “Dr. Seuss for adults!” But this show is not all-ages. Raunchy jokes and comically vulgar (but clothed) sex scenes are integral to the physical comedy.
“It’s a chance for adults to feel like kids again,” Robbins says. Yet, it may be best to leave the kids at home. The utter nonsense opens Thursday evening at 8 p.m. in the UNCW Cultural Arts Building.
The Doctor in Spite of Himself
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
Thurs. – Sun., Sept. 25-28 and Oct. 2-5, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees: 2 p.m.
Tickets: $5-$12 • uncw.edu/theatre