Just for Laughs: New Israeli Production of a Moliere Classic Passes on Play's Profound Elements

'The Imaginary Invalid' at Jerusalem's Khan Theater is Udi Ben Moshe's third attempt at directing the 17th century playwright - and not one to remember.

Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts

Every director who works in the Israeli theater knows, or should know, that in order not to build up frustration he must accept that there is a significant difference between the list of plays he is dying to direct and those that happen to come his way. Only if you are the artistic director of a theater - and even then you are not always your own master - or the head of a troupe or the owner of a theater (and there is no such thing in Israel ) can you direct what you want. If you are not one of those on that list, you direct what they offer you. That is why drawing conclusions about a director's tastes based on the plays he directs over a given period of time may very well be hasty or unrealistic, or both.

Nonetheless, when I see that director Udi Ben Moshe is directing his third play by Moliere in the last four years, and in two different theaters, I am tempted to conclude he especially loves the works of the son of the "valet of the King's chamber and keeper of carpets and upholstery" for King Louis XIII in the 17th century, and who was later the favorite and tormented comic of the Sun King. In 2009 Ben Moshe directed "Scapin's Deceits" at the Khan Theater - with the story of the Turkish ship, which was presented during the days of the Gaza flotilla and the Mavi Marmara incident. In 2010 he directed "The School for Wives" at the Cameri Theater, which is still running, and now he is directing Moliere's last play, the one during which the playwright, playing the lead role of Argan, died in 1673: "The Imaginary Invalid."

This is a case of a director's love for a playwright, as Moliere is a very deceptive playwright. (Or it might be a case of a director's incredible luck, or maybe not so incredible: During the same period, Ben Moshe twice successfully directed, one year after another, plays by Brecht at the Cameri: "The Good Person of Szechwan" and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." ) On one hand Moliere is popular in drama classes in high schools. On the other hand, some of his plays are written in rhyme and meter - since Moliere also wrote for the intellectuals of his period in the royal court and Paris - and all of them have elements of wild farce built on the movement and physicality of slapstick, since his plays also appeared at provincial fairs, and it is very easy to give in to temptation and let the slapstick take over the entire show.

A good run

Ben Moshe's first big success was "Scapin's Deceits," a play written without meter or rhyme and clearly based on situation comedy bordering on farce, and centered on a cunning and devious servant. In addition to Ben Moshe's quick hand in directing the farce, the enthusiastic casting of the Jerusalem Khan Theater and the music of Keren Peles, the director also had at his disposal an exceptional actor, Vitaly Friedland, who has the physical skills and emotional quality that are just right for the starring role. And this play also features the old translation, updated here and there, of Natan Alterman, which he endowed with linguistic style and grace that is also clear and realistic.

Ben Moshe's next attempt with Moliere was also considered a success, even though, at least in my eyes, it was a bit more flawed. "The School for Wives" includes three main elements of Moliere: The level-headed rhyming that is also stylized, free of imagery and realistic (and was graced by the translation of Eli Bijaoui ); a heart-rending human drama about a middle-aged man unaware of himself who falls in love with a young girl he is raising, and whose innocence he believes he can take advantage of; and a slapstick comedy of mistaken identities, which Ben Moshe mounted on a revolving stage and which he allowed to take over the show, which did not sweep you off your feet or take off, in my opinion, though there are others who disagree.

And now Ben Moshe has brought us "The Imaginary Invalid," considered one of Moliere's greatest works, partly because it was his finale. I assume it competes with "The Miser," which Miki Gurevitch directed at the Khan a few seasons ago, for the title of Moliere's most popular work.

"The Imaginary Invalid" is written without verse and rhyme. The spectacle in it is limited to scenes of the ritual behavior of the doctors, both within the story line and as interludes between the scenes. The heart of the play is the psychological comedy; the central character is held captive by his own self-image and until the end it is not clear - and this really should be the heart of the director's and actors' interpretation - whether he is being made fun of and worthy only of being laughed at, or whether he is unfortunate and maybe even worthy of compassion.

To theater artists who free themselves of their preconceptions and cultural conventions, Moliere's plays allow almost unlimited freedom for interpretation. In 1977, Habima put on the play (with Alterman's translation ) as a dark and bizarre drama. In this version Argan (Yehuda Efroni ) was a man convinced of his dire illness and who inflicts his obsession on his family and turns his home into a deranged hospital. This approach was new, surprising, fascinating and also legitimate (in other words, anchored in the play and the social context it was written in ). Yet the play was performed only eight times. The audience was not interested in such a Moliere.

Not really absurd

I don't expect Ben Moshe to go that far, or that he find something new in his current well-known play. But at the same time it is a bit hard to see how this play, which has so many interesting human and stylistic features, was thinned out into slapstick that was first and foremost intended to make you laugh at almost any price.

My suspicion is that in this play, so rich in human materials, Ben Moshe actually chose to give the main role to an object: the bed on which the imaginary invalid is supposedly confined. The large bed is set in the center of the Khan's relatively small, revolving stage. The audience very quickly discovers that the bed has a life of its own.

This interpretation is explained and justified in the program written by Miriam Yahil-Wax, dramaturge of the Khan and the play. "According to the director's view, in our time the fear of death drives people to chase after innovations of medical mechanization as if our bodies were engines that could be taken into the garage," wrote Yahil-Wax. "In the dramatic metaphor [Ben Moshe] chose, the patients are the victims of mysterious medical machinery, ... a domineering world ... that erases the human dimension from medicine. On the stage of the Khan a mechanical and theatrical patient's room is being built, preposterous and a bit threatening, in which the medical machine is a man-eating Molech," she wrote.

True, the two doctors attending to the imaginary patient wave in front of him and the audience the tools of the garage. And true, the bed moves under its own power on the stage, arbitrarily, without theatrical logic (such that would create a funny or expressive moment ). But it is not really ridiculous, and certainly not threatening. It is a demonstration of the ability to use technical props, though not properly. It is not medicine that is lacking the human dimension here, the staging of the play is lacking it - exactly because the director is busy with metaphors and props instead of dealing with characters and actors.

And these make do as best they can on their own. Erez Shafrir in the main role is left on the stage as a victim of the interpretation: He reacts with graceful comedy to what the staging and the bed do to him. He is funny enough here and there in his helpless responses. But did anything happen to the imaginary invalid? I don't know. Do I care? Not much.

In the hope that Ben Moshe will continue to contend with Moliere - but treat the human story in his plays more seriously - here is one last important note: In one of the scenes, the imaginary invalid squeezes out information from his younger daughter Louison about a lover's liaison between his older daughter and her music teacher. In the play, the little girl is not aware that she is incriminating her sister and the sister's beloved, and she tells her father the details innocently. At the Khan, the actress playing the little girl in a very short dress and white stockings jumps on the bed and acts out in front of her father wild movements that leave little to the imagination how "he" mounted "her" from behind and from the front. The girl's legs and hips were working overtime.

Is there no one in the Khan who is bothered by this tastelessness, which is an understatement? Fairness requires me to report that the audience laughed. I thought of a replica of the daughter Schprechtzi in Hanoch Levin's play "Schitz," who after her first time on the beach with her groom-to-be Schitz, says: "They told me people moan. So I moaned. That doesn't mean I enjoyed it."

From 'The Imaginary Invalid' at Khan: Actors were victims of play’s staging. Credit: Yael Ilan
From 'The Imaginary Invalid' at Khan: Actors were victims of play’s staging. Credit: Yael Ilan

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