I dodged motorcycles on the Taconic State Parkway to catch one of Peter Dinklage’s last performances in “The Imaginary Invalid” at Bard College.
You should, too.
By turns outrageously funny and unexpectedly moving, the production startles from the moment you enter the theater. Set designer Laura Jellinek places the audience on either side of a wide, raised stage. We feel like spies into the morning room of a mansion, with high creamy walls at either end, and just a few pieces of furniture.
Under the main playing area, we can also see down into the home’s columned entry hall. The split-level view unbalances us with its peek into some barely discernible but important action of the play.
Moliere’s last comedy (he died after a performance in the title role) takes aim at medical frauds and their wealthy dupes. In this case it’s the hypochondriac Argan, who opens the show sitting in a recliner going through his doctor’s bills for various, usually enema-related, procedures.
Argan is tormented by the servant Antoinette, who knows how to play up to Beline, Argan’s gold-digging new wife. Antoinette is also tight with Angelique, Argan’s daughter, who wants to marry the handsome Cleante.
Papa has other plans, which include marrying her off to the quack son of an even more pretentious quack, thereby ensuring a lifetime of free attention to his multitude of imagined ailments.
Erica Schmidt’s free-wheeling, all-male production owes as much to Italian commedia as to French comedy of manners. Eyes roll, foreheads meet backhands and everyone hollers a lot. If you’re expecting Richard Wilbur’s elegant rhyming couple -- the standard for translations of Moliere’s alexandrines -- you’re in for a rude surprise.
It all works breezily, in no small part due to superb casting. Ethan Phillips is almost sympathetic as the idiot gull Argan. Zachary Booth is gorgeous and subtly malicious as Beline, and Preston Sadler is hilariously willful as Angelique.
Anyone who’s seen Dinklage in “The Station Agent” or “Game of Thrones” already knows that this is an actor who refuses to be defined by his modest stature.
His stage presence is even more of a revelation, combining those intense blue eyes, physical grace and a gift for comedy that’s all the merrier for the switch-flips between foot- stomping insolence and brow-furrowing petulance.
Schmidt, his wife, knows exactly how to exploit his strengths. You have four more chances to get in on the secret.
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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