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‘Imaginary Invalid’ stuns audience with wit

Brilliant would be an understatement for St. Olaf’s production of “Imaginary Invalid.” From the stunning set to the colorful costumes to the admirable acting, the cast and crew should be proud of the exquisite performance.

“Imaginary Invalid” tells the story of Argan, an elderly and wealthy hypochondriac, and his struggle to be taken seriously by his family and servants. He arranges the marriage of his daughter, Angélique, with a young doctor to ensure he will always receive proper – and free – medical attention. However, she has fallen in love with someone else and refuses to consent to his orders. While this is happening, Argan’s manipulative young wife attempts to have a will written that will give her all of his money. It is through the cunning strategy of his servant, Toinette, that Argan is able to see through the scheme of his wife and accept the wishes of his daughter, while realizing he may be the only one who can “cure” himself.

Moliere’s script itself combines farce and satire to concoct a clever display of charm, wit and humor. Truly bringing the story to life, the actors under the direction of Gary Gisselman and Mariana Araoz boldly tackle the edgy humor and blatant innuendos, while managing to connect with the audience on a deeper level.

One of the ways this was accomplished was through the dialogue. During conversations, the actors used a “ping-pong” approach; if two actors were having a conversation, the one who was talking would look directly at the audience while the other looked at them, and then when the other character spoke, they both turned their heads so the new speaker was facing the audience. This direct discourse between the other characters as well as the viewers created an instant connection between the actors and the audience.

Adding an interactive element to the show, the actors candidly addressed the audience throughout the play, introducing the cellist, throwing in a shameless plug for the sister performance, “Marry Me a Little,” and at one point even walking through the rows of auditorium seats.

John Michael Verrall ’14 was simply stunning as Argan. His well-developed interpretation of his character and obvious experience shone through. Everything from his slightly-wobbly voice to his movement to his climactic fits of rage was the perfect balance between being fully immersed and being over-the-top. Repeatedly establishing that he is an invalid created a sense of apathetic likability, invoking pity while reminding the audience just how ridiculous he was being at the same time.

The chemistry between Argan’s personal servant Toinette – played by Sari Abelson ’13 – and Verrall was astounding. Her sarcasm and wisdom combined with his egotism resulted in a well-choreographed, almost rhythmic banter.

Andrew Lindvall ’14 as Cléante was one of the most outrageous and delightful performers. His complex but hilarious persona accomplished the daunting task of coming off as rather self-obsessed, and yet still completely infatuated with Angélique.

The purposeful interactions of all the actors with one another added a professionally polished shimmer to the play. The entire company is on stage at all times, spectating on the outskirts of the set when they are not participating in the main action. Each individual seemed to have an opinion on everything that occurred and openly displayed it with appropriate expressions and reactions. The cast’s focused engagement throughout the show was impressive, as all members stayed visibly in character for the entire two hour performance.

The play seemed set in an earlier time period. Taking advantage of an opportunity to work with a traditional French theater company custom, some of the stock characters wore masks during the entire play. The exquisite costumes of most of the characters were in the conventional fashion of Moliere’s time. The brightly-lit stage and looming medicine shelves of the magnificent set appeared to be from that time as well. However, many modern elements were incorporated. Thomas Diafoirerhoea, the young doctor who has been promised to marry Angélique, was dressed in scrubs with a black robe over them. Another example is when Toinette used a Swiffer mop to clean the floors. These modern props and costumes seemed a little out of place against the backdrop of the more traditional scenery, but effectively contributed to a timeless nuance that drew the audience in even more deeply.

If you haven’t had the privilege of seeing the show, reserve your tickets now. Be prepared to be drawn into the story, and to laugh a lot. It will be playing through Saturday, Nov. 17. You won’t want to miss this marvelously witty, enthralling, can’t-stop-smiling experience.

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