Hysteria & Hypochondria

It may seem a cliche to use adjectives like “witty” and “frolicking” to describe a performance of a Moliere play, but those are precisely the proper words for Shakespeare Theater Company’s “The Imaginary Invalid,” now at the Lansburgh Theater through July 27.

Helmed by a wonderfully expressive Rene Auberjonois and a sparkling Nancy Robinette, this is one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen at STC in a long time, with so many hysterical key moments for the cast it’s unfair to detail any in particular. But Auberjonois’ rendering of the hypochondriac Argan and Robinette’s saucy maid Toinette set the comic pace, playing off each other perfectly. A showpiece for the intimacy of the Lansburgh, it’s also exquisitely designed, with sets and costumes evoking the period without being slavish (Simon Higlett and Robert Perdziola respectively). Director Keith Baxter chose to reinstate the masques and commedia interludes that often get cut, with the result that audience members truly feel transported to Carnival 1673, right down to an appearance by Le Roi himself.

“The Imaginary Invalid” has the distinction of being the last play Moliere performed in, as he expired after the fourth showing. Written at the end of his struggle with tuberculosis, it contains a scathing indictment of the ignorance and arrogance of the medical profession of his time (with pertinent echoes to our own era’s uneasy dalliance between pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and their nervous boomer patients). And yet it is a supremely enjoyable piece – as all great comedy comes with a sting in its tail. Definitely worth it.

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