Theater & Arts

A not so clean bill of health for Fresno State’s ‘Malpractice’

Kai Di Mino, left, Rachel Martinez and Jacob Sherwood in ‘Malpractice, Or Love’s the Best Doctor.’
Kai Di Mino, left, Rachel Martinez and Jacob Sherwood in ‘Malpractice, Or Love’s the Best Doctor.’ Joseph Castelan

The next time you’re fighting with your medical insurance company, be glad you didn’t live in the 17th century. Doctors back then might stick a leech on you, or cut your wrist and watch a pint of your blood pump into a pan, or ply you with antimony, a “miracle cure” that centuries later would be used by murderers as the perfect poison.

As for the bill: Cash only, please. No such thing as a co-pay.

Such is the sorry state of health painted in “Malpractice, or Love’s the Best Doctor,” directed by Ruth Griffin at Fresno State. The play is a 1982 adaptation by the famed Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre of several of the comedies of Moliere. The great comic French playwright pretty much loathed doctors, and the play mashes together many of his most memorable storylines and monologues on the subject.

The premise sounds hilarious, but despite a handsome effort, the production doesn’t have the comic pulse or theatrical impact you’d expect.

Griffin, a proud student and proponent of the Dell’Arte style of physical theater, tries mightily to find a bounce and vigor to the material. She weaves stylized movements and choreographed interludes throughout the piece, as she’s done in many of her Fresno State productions. There are some breakout moments of amusement and insight, yet much of the time the play feels artificial and forced, at best an interesting academic exercise.

We meet Sgnarelle (Benjamin J. Garcia, with some nice comic moments), an old man with various ailments and a hearty fear of death, who is trying to marry off his daughter, Lucinde (a strong Karina Rodriguez), to a doctor so he can basically have a built-in form of health insurance for his household.

Yet the match he proposes, with Dr. Diafoirus (an amusing Jacob Sherwood), doesn’t go as well as intended. The daughter becomes a “patient,” to disastrous effect, so much so that a second doctor (Kai Di Mino, merry and amusing) is called in to treat the damage. What ensues is a whirl of goofy wordplay, silly physical comedy and mild introspection on the healing arts.

The actors are well prepared and jolly, with each displaying considerable physical-theater skills. Di Mino and Rachel Martinez, who plays a sharp-tongued maid, are standouts. Sherwood needed to project more confidence in his second-act opening monologue at the opening weekend performance I attended.

Jeff Hunter designed an elegant set with a large stage for Griffin’s actors to frolic, Eric Armstrong’s lighting design nicely demarcates between peppy comedy and shadowy dream, and Elizabeth Payne’s beautiful costumes help strike a dapper period feel.

“Malpractice” was designed for street-theater performance, and you can pick up on those basic building blocks: lots of pratfalls to keep things visually interesting, big jokes, exaggerated characters to reach audience members at the back of the crowd.

Yet moved inside a traditional theater space, those elements can feel too much.

While Liz Waldman’s sound design offers a running quirky accompaniment to the proceedings (an appropriate toot when a character says “clean as a whistle” say), the music design often feels over the top. Griffin uses period music from Moliere’s time, then alternates it with accordion tunes and ragtime works by Scott Joplin, often playing it over the actors speaking. I can imagine the music working well with a street performance, but it adds to the forced, melodrama-manic feel of the show.

Griffin’s major choreographic interludes often feel out of place. While nicely danced, they seem more like filler to pad out the running time.

At the same time, I acknowledge that Griffin accomplished what she set out to do with the production and was faithful to what the material called for in terms of style and presentation. She’s provided her students with challenging roles and has once again offered something different for audiences.

Unlike most of her other shows that have dived into the joys of physical theater, however, this one doesn’t have the same ease and sparkle.

Malpractice, or Love’s the Best Doctor

Theater review