Another week, another witty romp among the French bourgeoisie. Who dares say Washington is a dull place?
It might reasonably be said that Moliere is having something of a good month in the town that L’Enfant built, what with the sparkling Tartuffe that’s still going strong out at Olney and the vivid, hallucinatory Le Malade Imaginaire (The Ultimate Hypochondriac) at Church Street Theatre. Reasonable people might also argue, however, that the latter dose of social satire, administered with more vigor and imagination than precision by the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, isn’t quite as rousing a success.
There’s no reason it shouldn’t be. Malade, whose title is more often translated as The Imaginary Invalid, traffics in the same tried-and-true comic situations as Tartuffe, and it populates them with characters cut shamelessly from the same bolt of commedia dell’arte cloth. Moliere offers up another self-deluding victim of excess prosperity (Paata Tsikurishvili as the titular hypochondriac), another representative of the corrupt Establishment to exploit him (Boris Kazinets as Doctor Diarrhea), another younger wife (Irina Tsikurishvili), another daughter (Rachel Jett as the spunky Angelique) whose romantic happiness is threatened by daddy’s self-serving plans for her marriage, and another sparkplug of a serving girl (Catherine Gasta) whose brash, common-sensical approach helps sort things out in the end.
The plays even share a character named Cleante. In Tartuffe, he’s the worldly brother-in-law who embodies the reasonable perspective of the educated set; in Malade, he’s Angelique’s fiance, who—well, who embodies, along with Angelique’s uncle Beralde (Armand Sindoni), the reasonable perspective of the educated set.
But whereas Olney’s Halo Wines deploys a cast of (mostly) adept actors in a brisk, streamlined staging that hews firmly to Moliere’s unvaryingly audience-friendly ethos, Stanislavsky co-directors Andrei Malaev-Babel and Paata Tsikurishvili have prescribed a riskier approach. What they’ve put on stage reflects an aggressive sense of multimedia theatricality—an appreciation of the power of imagery and movement and texture that borders on the experimental—along with a profound sense of respect for the traditions associated with the play and the playwright. Both impulses are sound, and the desire to blend them is understandable; the trouble is that at Church Street, at least, the two don’t always mix terribly well.
What the Stanislavsky troupe has done so beautifully before—in intensely sensual productions of The Idiot and The Good Doctor that played to ear and eye as deftly as to the theatergoer’s narrative appetite—it does beautifully here in interludes of music and movement that, as they punctuate and occasionally illuminate developments in the unapologetically sketchy plot, represent modern riffs on the balletic interruptions and musical asides of Moliere’s original structure.
At the top of the show, for instance, Pulcinella (Paata Tsikurishvili again) and his trusty comedy troupe arrive to tell the story, making their way onto the stage in a gypsy wagon that barrels out of control toward the audience. Every element in the scene—wagon and obstacles and panicky passengers and all—is built of the gossamer stuff of pure theater: the performers’ bodies and gestures and vocalizations, along with their conviction that they can make you see what they see.
Likewise in a sequence that involves a flock of black-shrouded predators who torment the hapless Monsieur Argan, in one that evokes images of funeral barges, and in one that sends a swarm of fuzzy pink amoebas—the troupe again, in stretchy chenille body suits that leave them looking amorphous and oddly friendly, for all their threatening poses—chasing after poor Pulcinella, who’s been charged with delivering a letter from Angelique to her beloved. The actors throw themselves into these scenes and the folksy dances of Pulcinella’s troupe (choreographed, like the surrealist movements in the fantasy mimes, by Irina Tsikurishvili) without a hint of hesitation.
But their enthusiasm can’t obscure the difficulty Malaev-Babel and the Tsikurishvilis have had integrating the two aspects of their production. Even the amoeba sequence, the most weirdly ingratiating of the nonnarrative diversions, goes on about twice as long as it should. Some of the interpolated songs seem likewise unnecessary, and a number of them—not the folk songs, alternately lively and mournful and always well-performed, but the original ditties composed for the production—are downright graceless, lumpish in the way they marry text and music.
That may have something to do with the influence of Roland Reed’s adaptation, which doesn’t have the infectious lightness that comes to mind when someone mentions Moliere—though Reed mucks shamelessly about in bodily-function territory and manages to inspire more than a few laughs. Many of those, though, are rooted equally in the characteristically fine performances of the Tsikurishvilis and, most notable among the ensemble, of Rachel Jett.
And it may have to do with the varying skills of the cast; not everyone has the Tsikurishvilis’ eerily compelling way with movement, and almost no one has Paata’s comic flair.
But chiefly the reason is that the production lands somewhere between drama and fever dream. Stanislavsky’s Le Malade Imaginaire is a wild ride, surely, but it travels in uneasy territory, and ultimately it may be too much of a trip for most audiences. CP