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THEATER | STAGE REVIEW

Giving 'Invalid' the Silent Treatment

Taking words from Moliere's work robs it of wit, irony.

October 22, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Silent-film director D.W. Griffith used a lot of plots from classics for his early two-reel films, but he always changed the title and characters' names.

At Fullerton's Vanguard Theatre, director Elizabeth Swenson has taken Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" and staged it as though it's a silent film, but she made the mistake of not changing the title or the role names.

The problem here is that without Moliere, his dialogue, his irony and his immense wit, the plot has little meaning other than as a simplistic tale about an irascible old hypochondriac trying to marry off his daughter to drag a doctor into the family.

Projected titles, akin to those used in silent films, provide the audience with skeletal plot details and other descriptions from Moliere's play, but they don't help the proceedings much.

Moliere's social comments seem unimportant to Swenson, and what's left of the tale isn't any more meaningful than one of Griffith's potboilers, such as "True Heart Susie."

Swenson compounds the loss of Moliere's rich humor by adding a lot of dubious slapstick and great dollops of toilet humor.

The old rascal Argan makes several trips to a slightly offstage water closet, where he makes rude noises while his maid Toinette grimaces at the audience. Then, several times, Argan orders her to fetch his chamber pot from the water closet to be emptied, which she does holding her nose in disgust. Moliere would have written another scathing comedy about this kind of theater if he had seen it.

Without the soul and mind of Moliere, it's all pretty boring, and the efforts of "mime consultant" Caprice Spencer Rothe are so over the top that the most minor silent-era comics would wince at them.

To give the cast their due, they make a valiant effort. But for the most part, they're lost in the confusion of intent. Stu Eriksen is Argan, fidgeting more than he should, and Penelope VanHorne plays maid Toinette too broadly for many laughs. Patricia Francisco does better as Argan's daughter Angelique, by virtue of her restraint; and Christopher Sullivan's Cleante, her real suitor, follows her lead to his advantage.

The rest of the cast isn't so lucky, except for Joan Maurer, who is genuinely funny in drag as the loony suitor Argan has picked for his daughter, and also does well as Argan's sensible sister, though she looks more like Argan's granddaughter than his sibling.

Running almost two hours without an intermission, this production is a long haul. Griffith would have whipped it off in two reels.

BE THERE

"The Imaginary Invalid," Vanguard Theatre, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. $13-$15. Ends Nov. 14. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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