Berkeley Rep: We love you. Seriously, between The Wild Bride and their current mainstage production, A Doctor In Spite of Himself, the theater has truly reaffirmed its role in selecting and producing some of the country's most imaginative and entertaining new work. The newest play, a pitch-perfect and hilarious adaptation of one of Molière's "lesser" comedies from the mid-seventeenth century, is a master class in physical comedy that brings fresh life to a zany French story with an astoundingly talented cast. It is everything you want in 90 minutes of theater, that is if you enjoy things like laughing, and boob jokes.
Co-adapters Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes took Molière's text, and after doing a literal, modern adaptation with the whole plot intact, went about crafting a more experimental and mad-cap take, utilizing everything from pop music, to puppets, to Vaudevillian performance styles and liberal use of the F word. The result is a resounding success that had us smiling, and laughing (a lot), for its entire, intermission-less 90 minutes.
We open with an argumentative middle-aged couple, who have been recast here as Punch & Judy puppets come to life. They proceed to enact that beloved French trope, engaging in some mock domestic violence for comedy's sake, which ultimately leads to the wife (played with great slapstick timing and a shrill, put-on shrew voice by Julie Briskman) setting her "complete fucking idiot" of a husband up for failure as a "brilliant doctor," whom two court servants are trying to track down to heal a nobleman's daughter.
The husband, the dopey scamp Sganarelle, is played by co-adapter Steven Epp with brilliant ease. The man's face works cartoon magic. His timing, delivery, and clownish flexibility are also a thing to behold. His character goes on, of course, to accidentally do well for the nobleman, Géronte (played with equally awesome comic ability by Allen Gilmore), and to have a grand time flirting with his busty maid (Justine Williams, another able comedian). One of our favorite jokes, in fact, comes at the expense/inspiration of her sizable rack: Sganarelle stares into the canyon of her bosom and makes an echo of himself saying "Hello, hello, hello," then turns to the audience, and says, "I can see James Franco down there." And that's also a fine example of how adapters Epp and Bayes manage to insert enough contemporary references, including one to the Republican presidential candidates, to transport one, comedy-wise, to what Moliere's plays might have sounded like to his contemporary audience. This is far from a staid or academic retelling it's alive with motion, goofing, sound effects by a two-man band, and a barage of jokes that are almost too fast to keep up with at moments, but almost all funny.
Bayes' direction deserves special praise. This is a show that's all about choreography, comedic beats, and includes an awesome puppet show/outhouse contraption at the opening and closing of the show that is used to optimum comic effect, without feeling dumb, as it easily could have. Also, the show is interlaced with music, songs and mini-songs and two-bar references to familiar pop songs, all of which add to a complicated collage of beats and moments that feel like they're in the hands of a master. (Composer and musical Aaron Halva deserves a big hand, too.)
Be prepared for a truly unexpected delight when (not if) you go see this show. You're in for a taste of some really old-fashioned comedic mugging, via a very old play, that can't help but feel totally new.
A Doctor In Spite of Himself plays through March 25. Get tickets here, and as always, if you're under 30 you should call the box office to get discounted seats.