DYING TO BE SICK by Molière, translated by Adrienne Clarkson and John Van Burek, directed by Brendan Healy, with Hardee Lineham, Karl Ang, Stéphanie Broschart, Victor Ertmanis, Dov Mickelson, Nikki Pascetta, Alex Poch-Goldin and Michelle Polak. Presented by Pleiades at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Previews begin Friday (October 12), opens Wednesday (October 17) and runs to November 4, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday 2 pm and Sunday 2:30 pm. $29-$35, Sunday pwyc, previews and student matinees $18. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN
People can't stop talking about doctors, whether they venerate them as gurus offering magical elixirs or excoriate them as money-obsessed charlatans.
It's not a new topic. Molière offered his own satire on the medical profession in his last play, Le Malade Imaginaire. He played the central character, a hypochondriac named Argan who lavishes praise on his doctor and his apothecary.
Argan even plans to marry off his daughter to a doctor so he can get free treatment for the rest of his life. Fooled by just about every character in the play, he becomes a figure of ridicule.
Some say Molière's attack on the profession had its own just reward. He collapsed onstage during the play's fourth performance and died that night.
But no superstition has kept people from staging the 1673 work. The latest production is Pleiades Theatre's Dying To Be Sick, translated by Adrienne Clarkson and John Van Burek. Surprisingly, it doesn't play up the clown element that's often emphasized in Molière comedies.
"I discovered during my research that the comic aspect of this play is situational and character-driven; there's almost no humour from improvised business," says director Brendan Healy, who helmed Wallace Shawn's A Thought In Three Parts in SummerWorks.
"My understanding is that Molière was trying to break through clown, to put onstage a realistic representation of his society. What was onstage mirrored the world of the audience. He didn't use stock commedia characters, but created people who lived in Paris, had real names and a specific socio-economic position.
"That was a radical approach to comedy in the period."
Healy wants to emphasize the characters' humanity and not treat them as symbols.
"Dying To Be Sick is the story of an aging patriarch who's losing his authority and importance in the world. Not taken seriously any more, he tries to assert himself and regain control over his family of women.
"Sickness is his way of doing that. By being sick, he becomes the centre of attention, with everyone whirling around him and taking care of him."
A graduate of the National Theatre School, Healy's best known for his work on indie and summer fest productions. He recently directed I Am My Own Wife, Action and, for the Independent Aunties, Robbers' Daughters.
"Working on a classical piece like the Molière isn't totally different from creating something with a company of actors," he says. "It's still a matter of finding a work's style through authenticity, discovering what it means to us today in the rehearsal hall. You can't impose a style on a production and assume it will be successful."
It was important to the translators and Healy to keep an element of French in the English translation.
"Adrienne and John brought me onboard in part because I'm bilingual. They believe that in a country with two official languages, translating the play into English and losing its French flavour is silly. They found other translations too British and weighed down by their language.
"Theatre in English uses language to contemplate existence, to suggest subtext," he suggests. "In classical French theatre, language is action and used to enact an objective."
Part of that objective here is to send up the medical industry of the time. Healy wouldn't consider setting it in a period other than the 17th century, where purges and bloodletting were standard practice.
"But there's a clear link to today's audience. We put ourselves in the hands of specialists and pharmaceutical companies who we assume know our bodies better than we ourselves do.
"These people play on our fears about our mortality. I think plastic surgery, the emblematic medical practice of our day, is about our race not to be beautiful but to be permanent. People had the same urge in Molière's day."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Brendan Healy on the play's music and dance