MEDICAL MAYHEM: The merry pranksters of Berkeley Rep’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself include (from left) Liam Craig, Renata Friedman, Steven Epp and Julie Briskman. BELOW: Epp (center) and Craig (right) are joined by Jacob Ming-Trent. Photos by kevinberne.com
Maybe it’s a simple case of the winter blahs, but early 2012 has been kind of a drag. There have been high points to be sure, but people seem to be struggling and fighting and dragging around more than usual. Or maybe it’s just me.
Whatever, the blahs were relieved for a blissful 90 minutes thanks to Molière, or at least an utterly revamped, absolutely hysterical, bawdy as all get out adaptation of Molière by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Epp, as you may recall, was part of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which, sadly, no longer exists, and he made fairly regular visits to Berkeley Rep, with the most memorable probably being in The Miser.
He’s back, not only as co-adaptor, but as the star of A Doctor in Spite of Himself, a minor Molière play that offers major entertainment value in this new version, expertly directed (and carefully calibrated) by Bayes. Watching Epp work his comic magic is such a tremendous pleasure – his Sganarelle, a doofus lumberjack who fools everyone into thinking he’s a doctor, is a master class in how to get laughs by doing just about anything and everything but knowing exactly when and how to do it.
Happily, Epp is surrounded by actors and musicians who are as adept as he and having almost as much fun. This is wonderfully stupid comedy played by experts – it feels like a lark, but it’s masterful frivolity.
Even amid the fast-paced hilarity, there are moments (a precious few) of lyricism and real beauty (the rising of a crescent moon almost brings a tear). Like at the start of the show, the ragged proscenium framing the empty Roda stage (set design by Matt Saunders) gives off a melancholy vibe to start, and then comes the distant sound of a tuba. Musicians Greg C. Powers and Robertson Witmer appear, and they will go on to add carbonation to the proceedings playing everything from the accordion and clarinet to the trombone and the ukulele. The melancholy evaporates with the appearance of a puppet theater, housed in what looks like an outhouse with a TV antennae on top.
The Punch and Judy show begins – “domestic violence between two consenting puppets,” we’re later told – then the fighting couple takes human form as Epp’s Sganarelle and Justine Williams as his heavy-bosomed wife Martine continue the fight in the real world. But the puppet conceit continues. Every time someone walks behind the outhouse, they return to puppet form until the reach the other side.
Within minutes, we get the gist of this adaptation. Anything and everything goes when it comes to yanking laughs from the audience. Epp launches into Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and “SOS” in fairly short order, and he even quotes the Greeks: “Aristotle was right. Having a wife is a bucket of crap.”
By the end of the show, we’ll have heard an abundance of musical references, from the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme to “Rapper’s Delight” to The Music Man to Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me ‘Round.” Lady Gaga will be referenced, as will the leading Republican presidential candidates (the Santorum reference is pretty dang funny). The score (Aaron Halva is the composer and music director) includes original material as well, and it’s a key factor in regulating the intensity of the hilarity with some calmer, sweeter moments.
This cast creates an extraordinary comedy machine, and each performer is a vital moving part. Liam Craig and Jacob Ming-Trent are sort of a Tweedle Dum-Tweedle Dee pair, and just about everything they do, whether in tandem or individually, brings a smile. I was especially delighted by Craig’s deadpan delivery and Ming-Trent’s tendency to punctuate jokes with vocal runs.
Of course there are young lovers here, and Renata Friedman as Lucinde and Chivas Michael as Léandre do everything in their considerable power to keep the ingenues from being boring. Julie Briskman as randy maid Jacqueline is the epitome of the good sport, even with Sganarelle is motor-boating her. And Allen Gilmore as a doddering and fading member of the French aristocracy offers clowning of the highest (sometimes hip-hoppiest) order.
A Doctor in Spite of Himself could exhaust you with its onslaught of throw-away jokes and comedic bits, but Bayes’ careful direction varies the pace and tone just enough to keep the audience relaxed and, more importantly, happy.
Winter blahs be damned. This production is just what the doctor ordered.
Wherein I chat with the brilliant Steven Epp for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself continues through March 25 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.