by Jonathan McNicol
There are certain formulas you get used to if you regularly see any amount of dramatic theater. One of them starts with a Renaissance play that would’ve been seen as ribald when it was new. To that, a production adds whatever it needs to to make the play reek with ribaldry in the present day: vulgar language; vulgar humor of the sexual and toilet and anatomical varieties; even vulgar, outsized anatomical touches themselves, through makeup and costuming. To THAT, an adaptation adds the poppiest of pop culture references, the up-to-the-minute-est topical nods, and knowing, winking takes on the silliest, most ephemeral music you’re likely to have skipped past on the radio dial as you drove over to the theater.
There’s a reason you’ll run into a formula like that one over and over again: It works. If it’s done well, of course. And in the Yale & Berkeley Repertory Theatres’ current co-production of A Doctor in Spite of Himself, holy crap. It works.
To make a play by Molière as raucous and breathlessly paced and sidesplittingly funny as it was when it premiered in 1666 as Le Médecin maligné lui, you follow that formula—you fill it with today’s dirtiest words, you fill it with penis and poop jokes, you fill it with more ridiculous noses and hyperbolic bosoms than you can shake a stick at (I wouldn’t normally allow myself a phrase like ‘than you can shake a stick at,’ but here it’s literally true—lots of stuff gets sticks shaken at it in this play). You drop in references to the Occupy movement, to Lady Gaga, to The Deer Hunter (no, you really do). This adaptation won’t work five years from now; it probably won’t work one year from now. But who cares? It’s a ton of fun now, today.
The story is thin and preposterous and nearly irrelevant. Just as it should be. There's a long-married couple, Sganarelle and Martine. They antagonize each other, as long-married couples do. Martine, to amuse herself, we assume, passes her drunken woodsman husband off as a doctor mostly so that he’ll be beaten silly. With sticks. (This is what I’m saying.) There's a girl, Lucinde, who finds herself rendered ‘mute.’ Sganarelle, in spite of himself, you see, cures the mute girl in much the way that Maxwell Smart might thwart a spy or two, in much the way that someone who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night might win on Jeopardy. Like I said: It doesn’t matter.
In a play as joyfully over-the-top as this one, most every actor and actress will have his or her fair share of scene-stealing moments. Stephen Epp, in the lead role of Sganarelle, brings the house down at reliably regular intervals. Jacob Ming Trent, as one of the stick-wielders, Valère (and briefly as the Cherub), gets huge laughs here and there (and has quite the singing voice, by the way). Renata Friedman, as Lucinde (and early in the play as the puppeteer—more on that soon), is hard not to notice despite having next-to-no lines. But Allen Gilmore, as Lucinde’s father G‘ronte (and as M. Robert—lots of actors doing double duty in this production), may just steal the show entire. He uses his giant (prosthetic) stomach, his silly (and real) dancing ability, and, honestly, the color of his skin to such great effect that you’ll have trouble paying attention to anyone else while he’s onstage.
The Yale Rep has put together a night here that is as much a party as it’s anything else. (And the party starts, actually, before the play does. If the YRT ushers don’t have you dancing in the aisles while the houselights are still up, then you’re at the wrong play.) And the lighting design (by Yi Zhao) and set design (by Matt Saunders) work in near perfect concert with the party atmosphere. There are twinkling Christmas lights, there is the requisite mirror ball, there’s even a single, lonely lightbulb that brings everything back to its simplest center. The sets playfully mix the old and the new. The (almost utterly random) outhouse/puppet theater is an obvious centerpiece, but don’t miss the smaller details, like the familiar red and yellow ketchup and mustard bottles that mockingly, uselessly adorn a mantle for most of the second half of the play. And you have to love the way the fašade of the stage itself is clumsily cut away to make room for the band. The band! Speaking of scene stealing: Greg C. Powers (officially on trombone, tuba, and ukulele) and Robertson Witmer (credited on accordion, clarinet, and drums—but these guys also break out a number of bells and horns and I think even a whistle) are simply the beating heart of A Doctor in Spite of Himself. You could take away the zinging jokes and the jubilant singing and dancing and just let Powers and Witmer play (under the direction of composer Aaron Halva) and you’d still laugh much of the night away.
Epp, in addition to playing Sganarelle, co-adapted A Doctor with Christopher Bayes, who also directs the production. These two gents deserve the largest chunk of the credit here. Or blame, depending on how offended you find yourself. But don’t blame them. It’s so gloriously offensive, so gloriously gleeful, so gloriously full of spirit and uninhibited laughs—and for that they’re owed their glory. There are very few other ways to have this much fun six times a week in New Haven. I can really only think of one.
Originally published, in slightly different form, at Your Public Media, December 16, 2011.