Berkeley Repertory Theatre went topsy-turvy last Wednesday for the opening night of “A Doctor in Spite of Himself,” an adaptation of Moliere’s buoyant comedy co-produced by Yale Repertory Theatre. Colorful lights and a live tuba and accordion set a carnival atmosphere. The curtain rose, and a Punch-and-Judy puppet show seamlessly transitioned into a real-life squabbling husband and wife. The husband’s oversized pants and too-small blazer would have made Charlie Chaplin proud. But the real scene-stealer was the wife’s oversized breasts, lewdly wobbling around like giant bean bags.
The production’s frothy blend of screwball absurdity and raunchiness is a sugary delight, a confection that avoids being too sweet or silly, with pitch-perfect attention to comic rhythm. Based on the commedia dell’arte style, the 16th-century Italian tradition of stock characters, the adaptation was also a modern update on the anarchic slapstick found in Marx Brothers films.
Moliere might not have seen the play’s frequent use of fake moustache-and-glasses in his lifetime, but he certainly would have agreed with its goofy spirit. The French master of satire quickly wrote “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” in 1666 as a sure-fire hit to recover from his commercial disaster, “The Misanthrope” (now considered a masterpiece).
Consequently, the play is structured by commedia scenes, beginning with ribald arguments between the woodcutter Sgnarelle and his shrill wife, Martine. Martine pranks her husband by spreading word that he’s a genius doctor who will only admit it when beaten with large sticks. To avoid beatings, Sgnarelle plays along and is recruited by the wealthy Geronte to treat his mute daughter, Lucinde, who is hiding her own marriage agenda.
The knotted plot is typical of Moliere, but breezy wordplay and smart choreography were executed like clockwork in this co-adaptation by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp, both of whom have extensive experience in physical comedy. As Sgnarelle, Epp was a fast-talking wordsmith whose ridiculous diagnoses even included the names of 2012 GOP contenders.
Lines from pop songs and Internet memes flew thick and fast. Unfortunately, stuffing every minute with jokes means it’s inevitable that not every knowing wink succeeds. In particular, references to ABBA and Lady Gaga quickly became tiresome.
Once the characters were out of the woods and into Geronte’s mansion, however, the solid cast worked its magic. A huge component of the humor was the zany costumes. Geronte, played by Allen Gilmore, was a screaming riot dressed in ruffs and a humpty-dumpty belly. The ultra-slim Renata Friedman as Lucinde was a marvel of awkward teenage rebellion, wearing a 17th-century frock offset by combat boots, a pink miniskirt and Amy Winehouse eyeliner.
Because of the play’s “anything goes” approach, it’s easy to forgive the more awkward hit-or-miss jokes. There’s great fun in breaking down logical sense, such as when a buxom wet nurse (Julie Briskman) rapped in three different accents (sounded like Southern to British Cockney to Jersey Shore).
The production is nonsense wrapped around a love story. Like a candy Gobstopper, you won’t be left with anything substantial by the end (aside from the usual true-love-conquers-all lesson), but the journey is a fruitful exercise in whimsically layered folly.
Deanne Chen is the lead theater critic.