Review: ‘A Doctor in Spite of Himself’ a mishy-mashy mash-up

There's a neat trick involving puppets at the beginning of the show, which repeats at the end under a striking moon lit evening sky. Once again, there's no shortage of creativity on Addison.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Justine Williams stars in A Doctor in Spite of Himself, a classic Molière comedy. (Photo: Kevin Berne)
In Review

A Doctor in Spite of Himself

2 out of 5 stars
2 out of 5 stars - 'Boohoo'
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
February 10 - March 25, 2012
Written by Moilère
Roda Theatre, Main Season
Performance attended: February 17, 2012
Review by
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Justine Williams stars in A Doctor in Spite of Himself, a classic Molière comedy. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Look, I’m all for boobies. I appreciate the Tim Burton visual, especially when it comes to bats in the belfry hair and costumes. And modern-day references — James Franco, Quiznos, Mitt Romney — with literal #wtf chutzpah can really help ratchet up the Zany factor. But in the case of Berkeley Rep’s latest production A Doctor in Spite of Himself, the whole is unfortunately less than the sum of the parts. On the other hand, if you dabble in some pre-show Mary Jane over by the Peace Wall, squint your eyes, and don your polyester parlor jacket you might find this bizarro world a wildly fun trip down the rabbit hole.

There’s certainly lunacy here, and granted that’s largely the point…

An adaptation of Moilère’s Le Médecin malgré lui (1719), a happy-go-lucky woodcutter Sganarelle finds himself mistaken for a doctor. He’s unwittingly taken to a mansion where he’s cajoled into helping the daughter of a wealthy bourgeois regain her voice. Playing the role of a doctor, however, has its perks. People listen to you, and if you’re wrong you simply change the rules (being in the sun is good for you! … no, no… uh, it causes cancer!). So we understand when Sganerelle starts to relish his regal, new-found status.

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Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Jacob Ming-Trent, Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore and Liam Craig.

But the comedy does not surface, at least not consistently…

What’s odd about Doctor, is the frequent peppering of modern references alongside an old-fashioned tale of mistaken identity. We get politics (Santorum), fast food (Quiznos), music (Abba) intermixed with rapid-fire delivery that largely bamboozles us. The few laughs come not from comic story-telling or whimsical folly, but from the fact that we’re hearing today’s major headlines recited on stage. “Occupy That!” Oh, okay.

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At one point an actor asks, “When is the play going to start?” Mid-way through the insane barrage, if I recall correctly, I was thinking the exact same thing.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Two onstage musicians—Greg C. Powers and Robertson Witmer (right)—accompany the mayhem.

All is not lost. The costumes are beautiful. The acting is superb, most notably Steven Epp as the doctor in spite of himself. He dances, sings, acts with equal aplomb. If shtick is the thing, he’s your guy, and it’s quite an impressive physical exhibition. Also thumbs up for the two musicians (Greg C. Powers, Robertson Witmer) who bring mucho-gusto to the proceedings.

There’s a neat trick involving puppets at the beginning of the show, which repeats at the end under a striking moon lit evening sky along with a smile-inducing musical number about the power of laughter. Plus, the art of the stage slap and punch is perfected in some truly hilarious, well-timed scenes. Once again, there’s no shortage of creativity on Addison.

It was bound to happen: Berkeley Rep’s unparalleled winning streak has come to an end. During the last three years since we’ve been covering the explosively imaginative theater house, it’s received our highest average score of any theater – big or small – in the SF Bay Area. This production is my least favorite of the lot. Regardless, as I left the Roda I couldn’t help but smile. In some ways it’s far more enjoyable to watch a team take creative risk, reach for the stars and fall somewhat flat (see: War Music) than it is to sit through a warmed over re-run of, say, Sweet Bird of Youth.

Speaking of James Franco and goofiness

San Francisco Bay Area Film and TheaterA Doctor in Spite of Himself

2 out of 5 stars (Boohoo)

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Performance attended: February 17, 2012
Roda Theatre, Main Season
Written by Moilère
February 10 – March 25, 2012

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  • Greg

    I couldn’t disagree more. A wonderful adaptation of the classic commedia
    dell’arte form , with the traditional plot of involving archetypical
    characters of star-crossed young lovers seeking the assistance of
    servants to trick the stern elder into allowing their union. Slapstick,
    and references to both old jokes and local current events is a typical
    element of the genre, that often appear improvised, plus the inclusion
    of seemingly incongruous moments of genuine pathos and harmonious
    singing are de rigueur. I thought it all worked beautifully, aided by
    the unwavering manic tonic maintained throughout by the entire troupe.
    Great stuff!

    • Ha, I knew this day would come! We finally agree to disagree. This is the kind of production that those into theat-ah are supposed to like. It’s high-brow low-brow. Clever and quite witty. Only it’s mostly unfunny. When Allen Gilmore (just wonderful) suddenly breaks into Sir Mix-a-Lot, “I like big butts and I cannot lie” it’s head scratching stuff. Then, the play bottoms out with the “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” bit. Ouch. That’s the most tired, hackneyed pre-meme I’ve ever seen. However, the acting is superb, as is the music, the set and the lighting. On the evening I saw the show the audience was restrained. It’s the joy of theater. It provokes conversation, and we all come at it differently. Commedia dell’arte is probably not my favorite as you can tell.

      • Greg

        I think it was as much “vaudevillian” as it was dell’arte. People in the “theatre” generally don’t like low brow humor or silly slapstick even if it’s nicely packaged. Personally, I’ve never liked a comedy because I was supposed to or because it appealed to some higher sensibility  This production was just plain funny. Farce has always been a more  popular, i.e, for the masses, form of comedy. I don’t think the “Noel Coward” would appreciate the pop culture references as much…. Nothing you cited was really all that “witty or sophisticated,”  and many other jokes were just plain crude – but I still laughed.The audience I saw it with was highly enthusiastic; clapping in unison, etc. I overheard more than one couple say “normally I don’t go in for this sort of thing,but that was hilarious….”  Well, at least we agree the production values and performers were first-rate. Perhaps you needed a few drinks in you? ;-)