A puppet show, disco balls, Keith Richards-inspired costuming and an adult in a diaper are just a few of the anachronistic elements in the latest Molière production to hit New Haven.
“A Doctor in Spite of Himself” opens Friday at the Yale Repertory Theatre, adding touches of modern-day culture while staying true to the spirit of Molière’s work, said director and Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes. The show, a collaboration between the Yale Rep and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, will next travel to Berkeley, Calif., where it will open in early February.
Bayes worked to adapt the script along with actor Steven Epp, who plays the doctor — a parallel to Molière’s habit of playing the physician role in his own shows. Just as English speakers understand Shakespeare as outdated language, Molière’s original 1666 script cannot be modernized to French audiences, Epp said. But in translation, the show is freed from the constraints of its original time period and has more potential to be updated, he added.
“We are toying with how far you can go,” Epp said. “We break the audience into what to expect, and then they want to go further.”
The plot remains true to Molière’s vision. A farce about the medical profession, the show focuses on a woodcutter coerced into pretending to be a doctor who eventually learns to exploit the advantages of his new position.
This production, however, promises to go further by incorporating modern-day slang and pop songs — which include ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot. For the costumes, designer Kristin Fiebig mixes old and new: the young lover Léandre wears a powdered wig with Keith Richards-inspired crushed velvet suits and scarves.
“You feel the kind of legacy we are honoring,” Bayes said of the costumes. “Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, the Simpsons, even the Rolling Stones. The pants are [designed] a little too short or a little bit too big. The world of a clown is ageless, historic.”
This production of “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” debuted at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre a year and a half ago. When it moved to New Haven, Epp and Bayes said they tweaked nearly every line in the show based on audience responses. New songs, sets and cast additions enhance the current show, Epp said, and its new space has inspired changes to the staging.
The production will run through Dec. 17.