How fast can a person adapt a classic French comedy into rhyming couplets, cast it and get it onstage? It’s taken less than five months for Josh Chenard.
Chenard, the Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member who directed “Desire Under the Elms” for Firehouse Theatre last fall, was talking to Firehouse’s producing artistic director, Joel Bassin, this past April about a follow-up show. “I was thinking of Pinter’s ‘Hothouse,’ ” Chenard recalled, “but Joel said he wasn’t interested in doing any published works.”
Bassin is working on what he calls “a season of making,” inviting theater artists to bring him their works in progress. Chenard had directed several plays by the great 17th-century French comic playwright Molière, author of “Tartuffe,” “The Misanthrope” and “The Miser,” and was thinking he might do an adaptation of one of those, but Bassin vetoed the well-known titles.
“How about ‘The Imaginary Invalid’?” Chenard asked, referring to Molière’s last play, from 1673. “I asked for a year to prepare, but he said he wanted to open the season with it.”
Bassin recalled that when he and Chenard were talking about what they could do together this season, they immediately agreed that they wanted to do something funny.
“Our primary aim was to give audiences a laugh-out-loud good time at the theater,” Bassin said. “This production blends two of our favorite kings of comedy: Molière and Mel Brooks.”
The play focuses on a penny-pinching hypochondriac, Argan, who wants his daughter Angélique to marry into a family of doctors so he can get free medical advice. Of course, Angélique is in love with someone else, and comedy ensues, while the saucy maid Toinette manipulates Argan.
Chenard enlisted Jane Mattingly, the dramaturg who had assisted him with “Desire Under the Elms,” to write the adaptation, titled simply “Invalid,” with him. “I think we were terrified,” Chenard recalled. “We made dates to start, then we kept rescheduling. But once we got into the room together, it was easy and fun and funny.” Writing in verse was not difficult, he said. “I found that when I got into a rhythm, it was a great way to figure out punchlines.”
Rather than hold auditions, Chenard spoke directly with actors he wanted for the cast of seven. “Once it was cast — before we were done with the script — you had a sense of who you were writing for,” he added, making the writing process still more enjoyable. “I’m a huge Molière fan, and I understand how each character fits into the story — the mouthy servant, the soulful hero. But I was looking for a Mel Brooks trajectory for each character, too — that silliness.”
Chenard used Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” as his template, imagining which “Invalid” character would be like Gene Wilder’s alcoholic cowboy, Cleavon Little’s wily sheriff, Madeline Kahn’s hilarious tart.
The director was able to recruit excellent designers as well. Nia Banks’ assignment for costume design was to look at the 1880s — “Not so much fans and corsets,” Chenard said, “but using a silhouette and crazy fabrics.” Andrew Bonniwell is designing the lighting, and Chris Raintree is the set designer. “It’s really great when you find a designer that gets you,” Chenard said of Raintree.
With experienced actors such as Donna Marie Miller, playing the servant Toinette, Andrew Firda as Argan and Kirk Morton in drag as Argan’s wife, Béline, rehearsals have been fun. “It’s a good sign that we were laughing hard even during a blocking rehearsal,” Chenard said.
“What I appreciate about Joel and the Firehouse,” he added, “is that I’m allowed the space and autonomy to create this piece. Joel gives me that latitude.”