Nov 20, 2007 — Dying to Be Sick runs through December 1 on the Main Stage at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening and has our review.
DYING TO BE SICK, translated by Adrienne Clarkson and John Van Burek, is the first Canadian translation of the classic Moliere comedy LE MALADE IMAGINAIRE. In this his final play, Moliere holds up to ridicule the pretensions of the medical profession and also the human folly of trying to control the inevitable decline of the body. As Argan's brother says, "Most men die of their remedies, not their illnesses." The translators have aimed their work at Canadian audiences, and the play is sprinkled throughout with French phrases. To quote their program notes, "[It's] for . . . people for whom the to-and-fro of French to English and back again is not foreign."
Visually this is a spiffy production. Designer Teresa Przybylski's white backdrop with two doorways backed by a cyc is spare and functional. It provides a perfect canvas for Glenn Davidson's dramatic lighting that uses lots of primary colors. For example, Beline's entrance is combined with a wash of red light on the backdrop behind the doors and a small explosion - startling and fun.
Dana Osborne's costumes are clever, amusing and fantastical. They're mostly done in shades of grey, white and black, using interesting materials and shapes and including plenty of feathers. There are also several non-realistic wigs one of which is almost taller than the actor who wears it. I particularly liked the lining of the doctor's cape. The costumes combined with the set and lighting produces a very French surrealistic feel and gives the audience plenty to look at.
It's a good thing, as the cast and direction are uneven. Hardee T. Lineham is very good as Argan, the invalid, especially in his opening monologue and the "little finger" scene with his younger daughter. Victor Ertmanis also gives nicely modulated performances in the dual roles of Beralde and M. de Bonnefoy.
Nikki Pascetta's Beline is rather Italianate, which is an interesting touch. Aside from that her performance is rather shrill, two-dimensional and un-funny. As Cleante Karl Ang does well with his song and Stephanie Broschart as Angelique comes much more to comedic life in Act II. Henrietta Roi does a nice job in her professional debut.
I found Michelle Polak's performance as Toinette disappointing. She's an excellent actress whose work I admired in I, CLAUDIA, but she seems to have no flair for comedy, a major flaw in such an important role. Her performance is strident, heavy and unappealing with none of the cheeky air of mischief the role requires. We should laugh at and with her, and we don't.
Brendan Healy's direction is also rather ponderous for farce. He's put Argan's brother, the voice of reason, in contemporary clothes - a heavy handed piece of symbolism. And why the alien life-form? Perhaps a germ? As for the closing Commedia sequence, it goes on far too long. On the other hand, the phony death scene is terrific, and has the light touch missing in most of the play.
There's something about many French plays that makes me want to stand up and say, "I've got it! Now move on." In the case of this production it's not the play or translation, but the mis-casting and over-all direction. For the most part it just isn't funny.On a scale of one to five the NAC/Pleiades Theatre co-production of DYING TO BE SICK gets three and one-thirds Royal Canadian Mounted Police. For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.