The plot (such as it is... Commedia doesn't tend to concern itself too much with silly things like a plot) centers around the good-for-nothing Sganarelle (Brandon Grantz) whose wife Martine (Sarah Hawkins Moan) decides to get back at him for his oafishness by telling a couple of strangers that he is a learned doctor - but that he'll surely deny it unless they beat him soundly. Of course, the beatings convince him to agree to his new profession, so he is brought to the home of Geronte (Brandy Joe Plambeck) to try to cure his ailing daughter Lucinde (Danielle Cochrane) so that she can marry her rich suitor Horace (Scott Wilding) - though she would prefer to give her hand to the handsome - and less rich - Leandre (Alec Barbour). And of course, much mayhem ensues.
Director Arne Zaslove is a world-renowned expert in the style of Commedia dell' Arte (having recently been awarded a Fulbright Specialist Grant to teach and direct in Iceland of all places), and though the text of Zaslove's translation feels a little stilted, he does give us a production that pulls out all the classic Commedia stops. He treats the Hilberry company as if they were a traveling Commedia troupe, and with them creates a fairly stylistically authentic show. Zaslove works deftly and lovingly within the genre, creating a brightly colored, wacky little world that is an awful lot of fun to spend a brief 80ish minutes in. There are moments of true comic brilliance, though there are also a number of missed opportunities (the repeated entrances of the rich suitor Horace, for example, were almost uniformly passed over, when they could have been a delightful running gag), and frankly, the jokes seem to move a little more slowly at times than they should. Comedy like this requires a crispness and precision that I didn't quite see... YET. That said - it seems to me that this is a very strong show with a lot of energy that just hasn't quite found itself yet. Right now, the actors are very conscious of the genre - working hard to make themselves feel at home in the foreign realm of Commedia, but not quite living in it yet. I know I'm saying "yet" a lot... but that's because I really do think all the ingredients are here... and this play has the potential to be side-splittingly hilarious. (I will say: the audience has a lot to do with how this play comes across. So here's hoping you make it on a night when the audience is ready to laugh with abandon!)
Brandon Grantz is charmingly doltish as Sganarelle, making the most of his character's confusion and libido, though he seems to be less at ease in the scenes demanding a crisper delivery of witticisms. Sarah Hawkins Moan revels in rage as the shrewish wife Martine - particularly when she has her plotting bonnet on. Danielle Cochrane and Alec Barbour are adorably enamored of each other, making their all-too-familiar love story delightfully silly. And Cochrane's... "ailment" showcases her comic timing splendidly. Of course, this wouldn't be a Moliere play without a saucy maid, and this time the honor falls to the buoyant Bevin Bell-Hall, whose Jacqueline is an appropriately playful and bawdy counterpart to the harsher Martine. Topher Payne and David Sterritt are energetic and endearing as the witless servants Valere and Lucas. And Brent Griffith as Monsieur Robert, Miles Boucher as Thibaut, Annie Keris as Perrine, Megan Barbour as La Maman and Scott Wilding as Horace do a nice job rounding out Zaslove's goofy world. But the star of the night is definitely Brandy Joe Plambeck's spot-on turn as the hilarious miser Geronte. He gleefully lives the highly stylized Commedia character with all out joie de vivre that made me feel like he had jumped right out of a Commedia troupe.
The technical elements of the show were a real high point for me. Kimbra Essex's whimsical set lives somewhere between the traditions of Commedia and Dr. Seuss, which is really the perfect place for this kind of revelry to unfold. John D. Woodland's vibrant costumes almost take on a life of their own, flaunting codpieces and breasts every which way, and enlivening the stock characters with style and fun. Heather DeFauw's playful lighting design is in on the jokes, highlighting the style of the piece with a mischievous wink.
A Doctor in Spite of Himself is silly - that's all it wants to be, and that's all it should be. And though there was some squishiness to the overall timing and life of the show, I believe that what I saw this weekend was kind of an impressionist painting of what the show can be, and my suspicion is that the bits will solidify with time, and that this show will prove to be a rock 'em, sock 'em good time!
A Doctor In Spite of Himself (by Moliere; Directed and Adapted by Arne Zaslove) continues at The Hilberry Theatre through February 8, 2014. Tickets range from $12-$25. For more information, visit http://theatre.wayne.edu/ourshows.php.