How to Treat an 'Imaginary Invalid'

René Auberjonois plays both the title role and Molière himself in the Shakespeare Theatre's production.
René Auberjonois plays both the title role and Molière himself in the Shakespeare Theatre's production. (By Carol Rosegg -- Shakespeare Theatre Company)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

René Auberjonois, known to movie buffs as Father Mulcahy in the 1970 classic "M*A*S*H" and to TV viewers for his roles on "Benson" in the '80s, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" in the '90s and "Boston Legal" in the '00s, is no stranger to the plays of Molière.

His triumph as the title character in a fabled 1967 production of "Tartuffe," directed by William Ball, helped solidify the new American Conservatory Theater in its San Francisco home. "I can walk through the streets of San Francisco and people come up to me to this day and talk about that production," says the actor, a founding ACT company member, and before that with Arena Stage for three seasons.

Now Auberjonois is playing Argan in Molière's "The Imaginary Invalid," through July 27 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he's seen his daughter, Tessa, perform in "The Country Wife," "The Rivals" and "Lady Windermere's Fan" (son Remy is also an actor).

In addition to a long résumé of classical stage productions, Auberjonois won a Tony Award for his turn in the musical "Coco" (1970) and was nominated for "The Good Doctor" (1974), "Big River" (1985) and "City of Angels" (1990). Yet despite that theatrical seasoning, the actor says he hesitated to take on the role of Argan. A silly, selfish hypochondriac, Argan demands that his daughter marry a doctor she doesn't love just so he can have a sawbones nearby. He spends most of the show in a nightshirt, on a bed or in a chair, often clutching his abdomen, then toddling urgently offstage.

"I didn't get it when I read it," Auberjonois says of the part, but that puzzlement ultimately inspired him to take the role. "It's just always better for me to be challenged and to not think I know the answers. It's in the figuring-out process that you can make the creative leaps."

He has given his character a back story: Argan's wife, the mother of his two children, "probably died in childbirth" and that "kicked off all his fears about death and his fears about being left alone." That anxiety "has manifested itself in infantilism . . . and like a big baby," the actor says, "he doesn't want to be left alone in his crib." Despite Argan's irritating qualities, audiences tend to like him, Auberjonois says, thanks to Molière's skill. "I think they recognize his weaknesses, his flaws. I think they pity him. They find him laughable . . . just sort of a pitiful character."

The actor credits director Keith Baxter with staging "The Imaginary Invalid" in the context it would have had in its own era, with dance and musical interludes framed by Simon Higlett's 17th-century-style scenery. Many theaters toss out those moments, but doing without them, Auberjonois argues, "leaves the play as it was never meant to be." As the show opens, and also between the acts and at the end, the cast portrays Molière's acting company, singing and dancing to attract audiences and paying homage to Louis XIV. In those scenes, Auberjonois plays Molière.

It was while playing Argan during the fourth performance of "Invalid" in 1673 that Molière fell ill; he died soon after. In rehearsals, Baxter experimented with having the actor collapse at the finale, when Molière and his players meet the king, but the director decided it would "not really be fair to the audience," says Auberjonois. Those who know about Molière's death would understand, but "for the rest of them . . . it was a bummer of a way to end the season" at the Shakespeare.

Of course Washington audiences, especially at the Shakespeare, are famously erudite. At a talk-back session with playgoers a couple of weeks ago, the actor says with a chuckle, someone shouted, "Good luck tomorrow night. It's the fourth performance."

'Caveman' Returns

Cody Lyman, one of nine actors -- kind of like a baseball team -- who perform Rob Becker's solo comedy piece "Defending the Caveman" around the country, is on deck to do the show at the Bethesda Theatre July 9-27.

Becker's monologue with a set and props examines how men and women just don't get each other. Conceived in 1991 and performed by Becker for many years, including on Broadway, the show has become a cottage industry. It was sold not long ago to Theater Mogul, an international company with offices in Switzerland and New York. It has a "Defending the Cavewoman," by Emma Peirson, on its roster, too. On YouTube you can see clips from Japanese, German and Irish productions of "Caveman."

The 32-year-old Lyman has been doing it for about four years. "I love seeing the elbows flying during the show, the nudging," he says of the way couples in the audience respond to the "Caveman" take on why men and women tune in to life on different wavelengths. Becker's script explores the many ways in which men hunt and women gather from using the remote control to shopping. Message: Men don't "browse." Lyman says it is hardly necessary to be formally attached to enjoy the show. "Men and women misunderstand each other so much" that the material applies to everyone, he says.

Lyman and his fellow Cavemen stay on their game, acting-wise, by watching one another, though the company does send "quality control directors" around to look at their work once in a while, the actor says. "I personally get the most direction from watching the other guys. We all do the same show, but it's kind of like nine different shows. . . . Everybody brings a sort of unique energy to it. That's one of the things I love about the show, because it's such a story of Everyman."

Lyman studied acting in his home state of Colorado and comedy at the Second City's Conservatory Program in Chicago. Now living in Minneapolis, he also does commercials, voice-overs and the occasional independent film between "Caveman" gigs. By now he figures he's performed the show thousands of times, cracking, "I feel like I've been doing this show since the Neolithic era."

Follow Spot

· Arena Stage co-founder Zelda Fichandler will be honored in a public ceremony Sunday at 4 p.m. in the Kennedy Center. The center's education department and its American College Theater Festival will present the Legacy Award for Fichandler's lifetime achievement and "unparalleled commitment to the future of the art form through teaching." Fichandler, who was Arena's producing director from 1950 to 1990, chairs the graduate acting program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

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