This one’s a keeper. Even after more than 330 years, Jean-Baptiste Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, which skewers the 17th century French medical profession, continues to leave audiences in stitches. The Armstrong Atlantic State University Masquers will present it Feb. 28 through March 2.
The play tells the story of Argan, a hypochondriac who is actually healthy. “Moliere didn’t like the medical profession, dealing with clergy, or lawyers, so he wrote satire,” says director Roger Miller, a theater professor at AASU.
“The play is about a miserly hypochondriac who wants to marry his daughter to a doctor so he can get free medical care,” Miller says. “She’s in love with someone else.”
Despite its age, the play is hilarious. “There’s a lot of slapstick comedy,” Miller says. “Moliere was famous for his broad physical comedy.”
Although there have been many adaptations of Moliere’s work, this production is faithful to the original.
“We’re doing it in period costume, we’ve just updated the language,” Miller says.
Ironically, even as Moliere wrote the play, he knew he himself was dying. He had suffered from a chronic pulmonary condition for five years.
Moliere had a particularly nasty cough that often left him weak and exhausted. It interrupted his stage performances and left him unable to sleep. His friends had begged to leave the stage and seek medical attention, but he refused.
The role of Argan was written by Moliere with the idea that he himself would play the role. Throughout the play, Argan remains seated on a commode and coughs continuously to remind his family how “sick” he is, and it was a role that Moliere belived he could do, even sick.
However, during the fourth performance, Moliere began coughing so violently he almost couldn’t finish the play. He went home afterward and died when a vein in his lung collapsed.
The Imaginary Invalid was Moliere’s last play. Many think the timing of Moliere’s death may have been his biggest – and last – irony.
In the play, Argan is so worried about his health, that he pressures his daughter to marry a medical student so he can have round-the-clock health care.
“The doctor’s son he chooses is called a ‘booby’ in the play,” Miller says. “He’s a real weirdo. We are making him as dumb and funny as we possibly can.”
The role of Argan is being played by theater student Alec Caldas, who has been in several Masquers productions. Argan offers a departure from his usual roles.
“I’ve been in comedies, but I haven’t had the change to cut loose so extremely when performing,” Caldas says.
Caldas came to AASU after serving five years in the U.S. Army. “I had done a little bit of acting in high school,” he says. “Coming here reminded me how much fun I had. I do it because it’s fun.”
Caldas plans to be a writer. “I want to do plays and shows for theater,” he says. “Right now I’m focusing on short stories.”
Candace Kitchens plays the maid, a pivotal character.
“She’s very witty and clever,” Kitchens says. “Her master is Argan.
“She sees that he is a hypchondriac and she doesn’t cut him any slack at all,” Kitchens says. “She’s the one who figures it all out and makes it a happy ending.”
Kitchens has been involved in theater since the sixth grade. “I was eight years old when I found my first Shirley Temple movie,” she says.
“I was taking tap classes, and Shirley Temple tap danced in the movie,” Kitchens says. “I thought, ‘I can do that!’”
After graduation, Kitchens hopes to get into film, although she also enjoys theater. “I’m a big fan of Moliere,” she says. “I had read and seen performances of The Imaginary Invalid.
“That production wasn’t very good,” Kitchens says. “I knew it could be done a lot better.”
Kitchens says the Masquers production is an example of Moliere done right. “Dr. Miller is amazing to work with, and it’s an amazing cast,” she says. “It’s a bunch of young, witty and quick college students, just like in the play. We’re all Moliere fans.”
The AASU Masquers will present The Imaginary Invalid Feb. 28 and 29 and March 1 at 8 p.m. and March 2 at 3 p.m. at the Masquers Chinese Theatre at Armstrong Center, 13040 Abercorn St. General admission is $10, and $8 for seniors, military, AASU alums and non-AASU students. All AASU personnel will be admitted free. Call 927-5381 weekdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• The Imaginary Invalid opened at the Palais Royal Theatre in Paris on Feb. 10, 1673.
• Although Moliere was at odds with the church, attorneys and the Parisian medical profession, The Imaginary Invalid was his most successful play.
• Physicians were so incensed with Moliere’s portrayal of them, they were reluctant to treat him in his final illness.