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Laughter is the Best Medicine?

February 24, 2012

As I watched Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes' stage adaptation of Moliere's A Doctor in Spite of Himself at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last night, tedious memories of sitting through countless San Francisco Mime Troupe shows came sharply into focus.

The connection isn't surprising -- Commedia dell'Arte traditions infuse all of the Mime Troupe's productions as they do Moliere's plays.

The thing is, while I've never been able to get into the Mime Troupe's schtick -- there's something about the combination of slapstick humor and shallow political commentary that turns me off; it generally lacks subtlety and room for multiple viewpoints -- I can usually get behind Steven Epp's work.

His passion for eighteenth century French comedy usually goes way beyond the ribald types that populate the Commedia style. In his adaptations of The Miser and Figaro, he warps the characters, turns presumptions on their heads and provides political commentary that is as serious as it is funny. Epp's brand of theatre is right there, in your face. But it also magically manages to keep its distance and elude definition.

But no matter how much Epp (who plays the play's antihero, Sganarelle) and Bayes insist that "laughter is the best medicine" in their adaptation of A Doctor in Spite of Himself, the giggles ultimately fail to fully cure. The acting style is way too helium-filled and larger-than-life, the trashy allusions to contemporary pop culture (which include everything from Lady Gaga and Abba songs to quips about the present Republican party presidential race contestants) don't provide much in the way of meaning, there are no changes to the high-octane mood and one gets easily tired of the constant tits-n-ass jokes. As such, there's little in the production to offset what with more tempering could potentially be an hilarious and incisive commentary on the state of today's broken healthcare system.

That being said, I love the theatricality of the piece. My favorite conceit is the seamless link between the larger-than-life Commedia-focused actors and their corresponding tiny puppet personae. In some scenes, actors walk behind a puppet theatre set up center stage, then their puppet selves continue the trajectory by traversing the puppet stage, before the real actors take over the action on the big stage once the puppets have reached the other side of their smaller world. This gambit has the effect of making the actors, no matter how large they seem, shrink before our eyes. Thus the human drama is reduced to a "storm in a teacup." Our problems and passions are succinctly and potently cut down to size.

Epp and Bayes intend the production to be first and foremost a piece of entertainment, with satire coming in a distant second. They reveal as much in the program notes. But in order for laughter to truly act as medicine, we need also to be able to taste some of the bitterness of tears.

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