Zdravý nemocný (Le malade imaginaire)

Author: Moliére

Adapted & directed by: Dr. Josef Skála

29-31 May 1997

Waterfront Theatre, Vancouver, BC

Imaginary Invalid in Theatre Around the Corner

Here is, albeit briefly, the remarkable story of Moliere’s Zdravý nemocný [Le malade imaginaire], subtitled Renovovaná klasická komedie, which ran for three memorable evenings at the Waterfront Theatre on Vancouver’s Granville Island, at the end of May 1997, directed by Josef Skála, fountain of inspiration (and more!) of Theatre Around the Corner.

The production has achieved an enormously difficult task: it opens up the structure of Moliere’s comedy and resourcefully yet unobtrusively brings out its ‘classical’ way of radiating new meanings to new ages and generations--in other words, making it a piece of sparkling theatre that elicits the knowing laughter of recognition from an audience of the 1990s. 

In its original shape, when performed at the Paris Palais-Royal in 1673, the action was just part of a divertissement, a web of ballets and pantomimes that provided the movement largely absent from the relatively stationary play itself where the main character shuffles on and off the stage, and the rest of the cast enters and exits in rather predictable patterns. Under Josef Skála’s direction, the Vancouver production manages to create constant movement, surrounding Argan, the ‘zdravý nemocný’ (who remains centre stage for most of the time) with flexible comings and goings which do not permit a moment of static artifice. The other characters (the maid, his wife, two daughters, his sister, a variety of doctors, nurses and others) walk, dash, trip, sneak or march in and out, all involved for different reasons with Argan who, from his sick bed (or sick chair in this production), tries to control--mostly unsuccessfully--the happenings in his household and orchestrate them to fit the patterns of his various (imagined) ailments.

However, to do justice to Moliere as well as to the Theatre Around the Corner (TAC), Argan is more than a silly, aging man who wants to dupe the world and is being duped instead. Moliere perceived his characters in depth: his Argan is a man who tries to evade reality. This is, of course, a perennial human quality where a comic and a tragic potential intersect and mingle. Critics over the ages have tended to make it easy on themselves and claimed that the play’s constant stress on the protagonist’s self-centered nature insulates him against our pity.

And here we become aware of an illuminating insight on the part of the director who also--a truly amazing feat--played the main part. Having laughed at Argan for two hours, and feeling superior to this coughing and spitting, yet constantly calculating bundle of flesh that tries to manipulate the world to suit its hypochondria, we suddenly, toward the end of the play, experience what could be called a comic catharsis: Josef Skála’s superb performance makes us discover Argan as an average human being--weak, striving to achieve what he thinks is good for him, pretending a little, bending the facts a bit, open to flattery, blind to manipulation until he collides with it, scared of things unknown, but ready to try anything, finally flopping out of life without really having realized what it was all about. Does this not in a way represent the very essence of the all-too-human?

The final scene (a lengthy ballet scene and burlesque in Moliere’s original) was trimmed to its core: a swift and vastly amusing parody of a final medical examination ceremony, in which a group of doctors, chanting in hilarious czechofied Latin--or latinized Czech--medical questions at Argan which he answers, haltingly at first, then increasingly triumphant with the same cliche triad of medical ‘healing’ procedures: ”Clysterium donare, Postea seignare, Ensuita purgare.”. Overcome with joy about being pronounced Doctor of Medicine, Argan collapses into a blissful death and is carried off stage a la Hamlet to the chords of a solemn Gaudeamus Igitur played as a funeral march.

A word on some of the characters: there is Tonička, the cunning maid, acted with elan by Nora Linhartová, messenger and manipulator, when needed devil’s advocate who gets the plot rolling, as well as fairy godmother who manages to extract a paternal blessing for the hitherto troubled lovers. Hanka Lynn’s Anděla, Argan’s daughter, swooning with love and hiding her betraying bulge of pregnancy under her needle work and a green dress strewn with large flowers of innocence, presented a delightful, slightly tongue-in-cheek mixture of maiden-in-distress and modern girl trying to cope with her secret expectancy, as well as her glamorous and tough stepmother who would like to see her safely put away in a convent (for economic, not for moral reasons). The latter, Argan’s young wife, Belina, acted by Jana Sůrová, pony-coiffured, powdered and painted, stalking about in provocative red and black, managed to change her voice from sweet cooing sounds when she talks tenderly to Argan (in order to get what she wants) to sharp screams when countered by her step daughter or her maid, to tearful (pretended) wailing--interrupted by a quick comment in business like tone--when her notary (who is obviously not only her notary) settles inheritance matters. Peter Bugár caused much enjoyment in his role as the stiffly and parodistically professional Dr.Purgon who rattles off illnesses that might befall Argan if he doubted any part of the August medical profession. Argan’s sane and commonsensical sister (played with subtle understatement by Eva Čápová) is the only one who tells him that his illness is imagined, meeting, of course, with her brother’s moral outrage at so preposterous a statement.

Of the most memorable scenes, done with greatest attention to detail as well as to the overall rhythm of the play, I can mention only three: When Argan has gone off stage with scheming wife and notary, Moliere calls for a short scene between Argan’s troubled daughter Anděla and Tonička, the resourceful maid. The director places this dialogue front stage and has Tonička instruct Anděla how to do pregnancy exercises on a mat. While the girls plan strategies to get Anděla her man, she does a hilarious parody of the required breathing that caused intense merriment in the audience.

Another scene is the suitor-with-father-comes-to-woo-bride scene, during which the suitor son (acted with aplomb by Bronco Hyrman) is coached by his father Dr. Diaforius (Jiří Lochovský) like a puppy at a dog show, gets his imagined bride-to-be mixed up with his stepmother-to-be (whose decollete is more interesting), is fed candy when performing well, and rattles of his flowery proposal with inverted intonation and heaving breaths at the wrong time. Father and son--another successful theatrical touch--are made to look alike (except one has a grey beard and the other a black one). Moreover, they move like marionettes that completely counteract the physiological realism of Skála's Argan. He is all body, warm and somehow jelly-like, heaving, spitting, twisting (with body and mind) while the two Doctors Diaforii creak with mechanism, physical and mental. The automation pattern is broken for a moment, when the son asks Daddy for another candy, and the latter hisses at him angrily in-between the hifalutin speeches “Ty to koušeš!” This--a mixture of Moliere and a 20th century mother restraining her greedy offspring--filled the theatre with loud laughter of recognition.

In another scene the director tries his hand at drastic alienation. Having to deal with the problem of corporal punishment, as written by Moliere, of the little daughter Ludvička, who has failed to inform Daddy about the strange man she saw in her sister Angela’s room, the progamme notes of the director tell us, “we faced possible prosecution for ‘child abuse’ or  “sexual harassment”. And so the role of Ludvička was assigned to Zdeněk Matoušek, a tall, bearded and muscular man who appears in little girl’s clothes pushing a doll’s pram. The audience gasps for a few long seconds (having naturally forgotten the programme note), then bursts into laughter. What they see is a ‘white male’ getting a thrashing--a brilliant spoof on the more extreme aspects of political correctness.

The stage set simple, Vladimír Bezruč’s fine signature is obvious when one observes the few well placed props, for example, a framed picture of a large eye ball hovering left above the stage and literally eyeing the action as well as the audience. The toilet, a sort of outhouse with flapping doors, prominently standing there as a steady reminder of matters of the flesh--real or imagined. The costumes (designed with her usual perceptiveness combined with the willingness to take risks by Zdenka Dorničáková), are flexibly contemporary, the colour symbolism--green and white for Anděla, red and black for her step mother--works on the audience, the doctors’ black academic gowns which we all know from graduation exercises add contemporary shades of irony. Back stage, the bustling miniskirted nurses are clad in gleeming white. Tonička’s costume implies that she belongs to both worlds: Moliere’s and ours.

There are other clever touches that relate the play to our cotemporary society: marginal comments on Medicare are heard, the notion of ‘ethnic minorities’ (Tonička reveals herself as a Slovak and compatriot of Anděla’s secret lover) are readily perceived by the lively audience.

All in all--and much remains unsaid here--Theatre Around the Corner with Josef Skála in the lead, has shown us with particular gusto that they not only handle a 300 years old classical comedy with nearly professional abilities and the freshness that professional companies are sometimes lacking, but also draw on the play’s secret springs of relevance to our world without depriving it of its timeless lustre.

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz