The Doctor Is Outrageous

17. February, 2012 Theater No comments

In reviewing theater, all too often I have to call out a production for playing the comedy too broadly in a way that just seems clumsy. The humor in Steven Epp’s latest show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is broad as can be, but it’s so well executed by the cast of eight that it’s usually flat-out hysterical even if it doesn’t bear much thinking about. A Doctor in Spite of Himself is a 1666 comedy by Molière (the artist seldom known as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) that star Epp and director Christopher Bayes have considerably revamped and updated in a way that only ramps up the hilarity. The play’s a satire about doctors being a pack of frauds, and Epp and compatriots accentuate the already ample farcical element to elephantine proportions, shifting the focus to the common idiocy of humankind.

Steven Epp and Julie Briskman in A Doctor in Spite of Himself. Photo by

Epp’s been a frequent visitor to the Rep for years with his now-departed Minneapolis company Theatre de la Jeune Lune, bringing us the marvelous shows Figaro, Molière’s The Miser, The Green Bird and Don Juan Giovanni. This Doctor originated at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre two years ago and comes to Berkeley in a coproduction with Yale Repertory Theatre. The entirely nonlocal cast of eight is terrifically strong. This production plays much more fast and loose than any of those and is considerably less cohesive (which is also somewhat true of the play on which it’s based), but it’s so damn much fun that it’s hard to begrudge its silliness.

Two men are out looking for a doctor to cure a rich man’s daughter who lost the power of speech after her father refused to let her marry the man she desired. The wife of a woodcutter convinces them that her husband is a great doctor but will pretend not to be unless they beat it out of him. After a bit of physical convincing, the woodcutter Sgnarelle agrees that he’s a doctor after all and goes with them to pass himself off as one, spouting a lot of Latinate gobbledygook to make himself sound learned.

A comically shuffling old man (Chivas Michael) pushes in an outhouse-shaped puppet theatre, out of which emerge Epp’s Sgnarelle and Justine Williams as his wife Martine. Williams’ Martine has a big cartoony smile, a squeaky voice and huge, floppy bosoms, all of which she employs to hilarious effect. Epp makes a classic sly idiot as Sgnarelle with superb comic delivery, whether he’s exclaiming “What the shit?” or letting loose with long streams of “whacking wood” or boob jokes.

Martine and Sgnarelle start off as battling puppets in a Punch and Judy show and wander in and out of the puppet stage into the real world freely and seamlessly, going from miniature to life-size (because, well, they are in fact alive) in the process. It’s a shtick that’s been done on this stage before—such as the characters running in and out of a silent film in 2006’s all wear bowlers, in which the gimmick was more tied in to the plot—but it’s done here with a casual ease that’s terribly charming. There’s no particular relevance to them being puppets aside from making domestic violence more palatable and giving a nod to the multifarious traditions that are heir to the commedia dell’arte that inspired Molière’s play. There’s a whole lot of vaudeville in the show for similar reasons—as a freewheeling celebration of “low” comedy of all eras.

Jacob Ming-Trent and Liam Craig have a wonderful rapport as a dweeby duo of servants looking for someone to cure their master’s daughter. Ming-Trent’s Valère is childlike and soft-spoken, with occasional lapses into a deep “street” voice for effect. Liam Craig’s Lucas is a milquetoast worrywart given to elaborate exclamations like “holy birdcrap shoulders of St. Francis!” or “you two-timing, headboard-banging love of my life.” There’s a weird post-traumatic stress disorder gag with him that doesn’t really work, and a running joke of the pair saying “honky honk” whenever they talk about the daughter’s muteness is baffling until much later, but their performances are tremendously endearing on the whole.  Ming-Trent also has a marvelous cameo as a cherub, singing in falsetto French about how he’s just filling time to cover the costume changes, and Craig and Williams have a splendid turn as country bumpkins come to the doctor for help. (I’m going to run out of superlatives awfully quickly, but I really do love the performances in this show, even if there’s some gratuitous shtick in the script that could stand to be tightened.)

Julie Briskman is bawdy and strongly self-possessed as the quick-witted maid and wet nurse Jacqueline, Lucas’s wife, to whose formidable bosom Sgnarelle is drawn like a magnet. Loose-limbed and gape-jawed in a low-hanging fatsuit, Allen Gilmore is all over the place as the master of the house, Géronte, but even his especially broad buffoonery is amusing, particularly a very funny mashup of various old-school rap hits he does after demurring at length that no one wants to see him do a song and dance number. Puppeteer Renata Friedman’s Lucinde, the patient, is a sullen goth in a wheelchair with horizontal Bride of Frankenstein hair, and she does indeed speak in elaborate honking noises. Chivas Michael is all dramatic poses and charmingly florid declarations of love as her heart’s desire, “the fabulous Léandre.”

The stage at first is entirely bare, except for a crumbling antique proscenium arch that makes the Rep’s Roda Theatre look like an entirely different type of Old World venue. But so crafty is Matt Saunders’s set that as the play goes on it the scenery becomes more and more elaborate. Kristin Fiebig’s brightly colored costumes are a delightful mishmash of eras from the 17th century to the early 20th to the present. Multi-instrumentalists Robertson Witmer and Greg C. Powers provide enchanting vaudevillian musical accompaniment throughout the show, composed by musical director Aaron Halva, and Powers shouts occasional hearty encouragement at particularly cheesy punch lines in the manner of Ed McMahon.

It’s not always, or even often, clear why characters slip into a lot of the shticks that they do. Why do people keep slipping into ’80s song lyrics, or jump deliberately from one funny accent to another? (For that matter, why are the ushers all dancing around to Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” right before the show starts?) It can be perplexing and is clearly based more in the actors entertaining the audience than anything the characters are motivated to do, but the Fourth Wall is broken early enough that all this tomfoolery doesn’t feel like cheating per se. Some of the best moments in the show are comments on theatrical traditions that the production casually upends: After a classic clattering slapstick collision is heard offstage, Epp says, “You know, you’ve got a whole bunch of pots and pans back there that people keep tripping over.”  So much of what the cast throws at the audience lands beautifully that it hardly matters if some of the other stuff they’re chucking splatters messily. After all, most of us are still not done laughing at that last bit when the next thing flies by.

A Doctor in Spite of Himself
Through March 25
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #19 of 2012, attended February 15.

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