UNCW’s Department of Theatre opens their season with Arne Zaslove’s new translation of Molière’s “The Doctor In Spite of Himself.” It originally was penned in 1666 as one of the many Sganarelle plays, a group of comedies in which Molière appeared onstage in the re-occurring role of Sganarelle—a hard-drinking, selfish schemer.
In an effort to communicate to the students and audience that this is a comedic farce and part of the body of work that roots from modern-day comedy, Director Anne Berkeley and the design team of Max Lydy (scenic design) and Mark Sorensen (costume design), have created a Dr. Suess-like world for the characters to play in. It is a high-concept production design that looks fabulous down to the details of an open-book painted on the front of the stage to emphasize the fantasy story nature of what we are seeing. My companion kept commenting on how much she loved the costumes and the set. Gertonte (Luke Robbins), the duo of Valere (Matt Carter) and Lucas, (Grant Hedrick) Geront’s servants, and the wet nurse Jacqueline (Emily Kaitlyn Hunter) were particular favorites. Sorenson has an eye for detail, and, when asked to produce the outrageous, he manages to out-do himself time and time again.
The story is quite simple: A drunken wood cutter, Sganarelle (Bruno Rose) fights with his wife, Martine (Arianna Tysinger), who decides to play a joke on him by convincing two bumbling servants, Valere (Matt Carter) and Lucas (Grant Hedrick), of a wealthy neighbor, Geronte (Luke Robbins), that Sganarelle is a doctor. More so, Martine touts him the greatest doctor in the world who can cure their now-mute daughter, Lucinde (Ashley Brurton), so that her arranged marriage can go on as planned. Sganarelle is surprised to discover that everyone believes this, but quickly realizes that he can charge people ridiculous sums of money, even if he doesn’t get results!
Sganarelle is a part that Molière wrote for himself and played frequently onstage in many iterations. It’s like Mike Myers and Austin Powers, only from the 1600s. Like Powers, on the surface Sganarelle is a fool with an insatiable lust and dirty mind. Both characters have depth of wit and humor that is more intellectual than first expected, which requires not just for the audience to listen but for the performer to set up the joke in a manner that makes it accessible. Rose and most of the cast have mastered the physical side of the comedy. Actually, several of the visual sex jokes went on much longer than they needed to: Sganarelle piling on top of other characters wasn’t as funny as the titillation in the dialogue could have been. Powers’ “yeah, baby!” is the funnier because he thinks he’s irresistible.
Still, the physical comedy in the show is funny. Ashley Burton as the mute, wheelchair-bound love interest is simultaneously quite hilarious and inspiring sympathetically. Robbins as her misguided father nods to Groucho Marx both physically and in his outrageous wig. Emily Kaitlyn Hunter rounds out the three stock characters that Molière loved so much: the desperate young girl, the misguided father and the wise nurse. Hunter is beautiful and in her ridiculous exaggerated costume, her voice of reason has the potential to be a striking comedic contrast.
Carter and Hedrick, the bumbling servants, are very funny in the beginning. Visually, their costumes and makeup, paired with their physicality, is laugh-inducing. But it’s one-note and it wears out pretty quickly. They clearly weren’t given direction to develop these characters with any motivation or nuance.
Much fuss has been made about premiering this new translation of “The Doctor In Spite of Himself” by Zaslove. It is certainly part of the mission of academic theatre to expose their students and the community to the developments within the cannon of dramatic literature. To that end, many original scripts begin to gain traction on the university stage Also university theatre continues to produce many classic plays that would have a hard time drawing box-office numbers for commercial theaters, but nonetheless remain important and viable in the evolving world of dramatic literature. On the surface, this translation would look like the perfect melding of these two missions.
My companion for the evening was particularly interested to join me as an opportunity to experience the literary artistry and merit for which Molière is touted. “Rhyming couplets,” I mused to her in the car on the way there. “Rhyming couplets.” There are several translations of this piece, and I admit that one I am partial to is by Tim Mooney, which really highlights the rhyming structure. Zaslove appears to come to this work form a clowning and physical comedy background, which certainly is part of the make-up of the Molière’s ouvre, but a beauty of language did not come through in this translation or production. I don’t know if it was the director’s choice, or if it was the translation, but there is also almost no rhythm to this show. It feels like 90 minutes of one long screech. Indeed, much of the dialogue is delivered at a fever pitch that sounds like a performer winding up for delivery and just holding on for dear life to get to the other side. It’s not thoughtful, it doesn’t breathe, and though the physical comedy is quite broad, obvious and funny, much of the intellectual humor of the farce is lost.
As an educational endeavor, this production is a laudable undertaking. Visually, it lives up to the promises that UNCW’s design and production team have come to be known for. It is great that UNCW took a chance on this script and, hopefully, this staging will help the translator refine the work for future productions.
The Doctor In Spite of Himself
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
Thurs. – Sun., through Oct. 2-5, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees: 2 p.m.
Tickets: $5-$12 • uncw.edu/theatre