L to R: Liam Craig, Renata Friedman, Steven Epp and Julie Briskman star in "A Doctor in Spite of Himself". Photo courtesy: kevinberne.com

For more than 325 years, Molière’s comedies have been entertaining audiences around the world. Although some of his characters were derived from the Italian Punch and Judy shows of the Commedia dell’Arte, Molière’s special talent was his ability to satirize the hypocrisy of the upper classes, from mocking polite society’s norms in Le Misanthrope, to attacking religion in Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur. The witty satire and the kernel of truth beneath it, accompanied by some silliness, make Molière’s work entertaining and timeless.

Molière’s biting wit is unfortunately absent in Berkeley Rep’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself (Le Médecin malgré lui). Instead, the play, as adapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes, is a very broad farce, complete with artfully played Commedia dell’Arte characters lead by Epp, who combine schtick and slapstick with clever and contemporary asides, and a talented two-piece band, Greg C. Powers (trombone, tuba, ukulele) and Robertson Witmer (accordion, clarinet, drums) who sets the upbeat mood with music and sound effects.

As the play opens, we see a Punch and Judy puppet show come alive as Martine (Justine Williams) and her husband, Sganarelle (Steven Epp) fight about who is truly the head of their household. Martine has funny (fake) boobs at her waist that she throws around during the production. However, her screechy voice irritated me to the point that I would have divorced her had I been Sganarelle. Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted to live with Sganarelle either, had I been Martine.

Julie Briskman and Steven Epp. Photo: courtesy kevinberne.com

Martine takes revenge on her lazy arrogant husband by convincing two men (Allen Gilmore, Liam Craig), who are on a mission for their boss, the wealthy Géronte (Allen Gilmore), that Sganarelle is a famous doctor who can cure all diseases.

They take him to Géronte’s fine home to cure his mute daughter (Renata Friedman) so he can marry her off to his choice of husband. It is because she loves another, Léandre (Chivas Michael), that she refuses to speak to anyone. Ultimately, and after lots of hubbub, tumult, slapstick, as well as lecherous and bawdy jokes, Sganarelle cures her and all live happily ever after — except perhaps Martine and Sganarelle.

Steven Epp is a terrific clown in the Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle school of comedy. Epps maintains a flawless deadpan, which, in a second, he can turn into a sly grin. His timing is perfect, thanks to his talent and Christopher Bayes’ direction.

So why wasn’t I rolling in the aisle laughing? Yes, the cast, particularly Epp, performed skillfully. The verbal and musical asides were funny, but only in passing. The combination of a less than spectacular Molière play and the over-reliance on slapstick and schtick rather than more subtle wit that reveals underlying truths, just didn’t work for me.

The Doctor in Spite of Himself is a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre and runs through March 25, 2012. For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...