Once again Theater Artists Olympia (TAO) has taken a classic and updated it to make it, if not better than the original, then at least more enjoyable and laughable for contemporary audiences. Philip Wickstrom, Pug Bujeaud and the TAO collective have updated Molière’s 17th-century farce The Physician in Spite of Himself, setting it in Louisiana in the 1880s. In this version, directed by Bujeaud and starring Robert McConkey as the phony physician Sganarelle, there is a lot of spanking going on (mildly titillating, hilarious sadomasochism). That inspires the show’s subtitle, “Whackingly Naughty Comedy.”
Bujeaud warned audiences at the beginning of the season. Noting that TAO had a reputation for shows with a lot of violence, like their great but exceedingly violent adaptation of Titus Andronicus, Bujeaud said this year they would go for sexy and funny. They’ve done that in spades with Physician.
The setup is simple but ludicrous. Sganarelle is a poor woodworker who drinks a lot and beats his saucy wife, Martine (Jess Allan). She apparently likes the beating and returns the favor. To get even with him for disappointing her, she sets it up so he’s mistaken for a physician—a plot point that proves both Molière and the adapting team of Wickstrom and Bujeaud valued humor over believability—and discovers that being a doctor is a lot of fun. It doesn’t seem to matter that he hasn’t the slightest notion what he’s doing.
When he’s corrected for saying the liver is on the left side and the heart on the right, he laughs it off by replying, “We have changed all that.” His cavalier attitude helps him get away with proposing absurd cures. Meanwhile, he flirts outrageously with a sexy nurse, Jacqueline (Vanessa Postil).
Lucinde (Sara Geiger) suffers from a rare disease that renders her unable to talk. All the best physicians in the land have tried and failed to cure her. Her father, Geronte (Marko Bujeaud), begs Sganarelle to cure her—which he does, miraculously. Suddenly everyone believes he’s the greatest physician in the world. Geronte wants Lucinde to marry a wealthy suitor she doesn’t love instead of Léandre (Alayna Chamberland), whom she does. Casting a woman to play Léandre adds a nice contemporary twist.
For a production with no significant set, meaning no stairs, tables or chairs but only a painted backdrop and three boxes, Physician‘s staging is gorgeous. The backdrop is a woodland scene originally designed by Linda Whitney and created for Harlequin’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Adding to the visual appeal are the costumes. They’re relatively accurate for the time and place, though in a madcap farce such as this accuracy is irrelevant. Particularly striking are the dress worn by Lucinde and Mad-Max-style outfit worn by Valeria (Heather Christopher).
From McConkey as Sganarelle to the smallest bit parts, the entire cast is outstanding. McConkey’s physical gyrations are monumental, with no subtlety whatsoever but wild, all-out slapstick. Allan is also great. There’s subtlety in her acting, but also over-the-top flirtatiousness. Other performances worthy of note are those of Postil and Mark Alford.
For big belly laughs, The Physician in Spite of Himself is a few steps above other shows gracing area stages this season.
(This review appears courtesy of The Weekly Volcano.)
What: The Physician in Spite of Himself
Where: The Midnight Sun Performance Space,
113 Columbia St. N, Olympia
When: 8 p.m., Dec. 15-17
How much: $15
Learn more: 360-292-5179 | TAO