Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Berkeley Rep’s Laugh Riot Doctor in Spite of His Hellzapoppin’ Self

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday February 21, 2012 - 05:25:00 PM
Steven Epp and Julie Briskman (left) in A Doctor in Spite of Himself
Steven Epp and Julie Briskman (left) in A Doctor in Spite of Himself

I hate it when critics resort to telling the story, so let me just tease you with the opening premise:

so…there is this lowlife woodcutter who lives—well, in the woods—with his wife. The woodcutter spends his day whacking his wood in between taking a whack on Old Single Malt. Now, he and his wife are French Trailer Trash who go at each other like Punch and Judy. Actually, the characters spring to life from a most ingenious potty joke of a P & J show. Hell hath no fury, etc., so when a couple of strong-arm goons for the local rich guy comes by looking for the Renowned Healer who reputedly lives in the woods, Wifey sets up Woody by telling them he’s a doctor--and, beaten into it by the goons, he turns out be one in spite of himself. Of course, being French, it’s about amour, and how he brings the lovers together over the objections of the father, etc., etc.

It’s a 90-minute laugh riot, throwing in every modern reference they could muster, with lots of F-bombs, and a true hellzapoppin’ hoot-and-a-holler. “Vaudeville” (a French word) was originally a comedy that had new funny lyrics put to popular songs, and the singing here is phenomenal. Greg C. Powers and Robertson Witmer on accordion and tuba (a couple of laugh-provoking instruments in their own right) provide accompaniment. 

You can see the plot coming, it’s a good time and they fill it up, but an hour and half of unremitting farce, no matter how dressed up and witty, wears a little thin for my sensibilities. However, this is undoubtedly the best Moliere I’ve ever seen, and you won’t be sorry you went. 

­­­­­­­­­­Matt Saunders has designed an awe-inspiring proscenium arch that looks like it was imported from an old theatre in Paris, with a big cartouche and water stains. There are holiday lights draped over the audience. The pre-show music is all pop and about doctors: “Doctor My Eyes,” “Put the Lime in the Coconut,” etc., and the ushers are dancing in the aisles with the bolder audience members. Thus the stage, though bare, is set for comedy. From a bare stage, with a painted backdrop full of the clouds like that Magritte painting (the goons appropriately wear bowler hats), the great hall of a mansion appears with hearth, chandelier, three transparent French doors (the magic number of doors for any farce), which all make one smile at the joy of their artistry. 

Steven Epps may indeed be Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (stage name “Moliere”) reincarnate. Epps and collaborator Christopher Bayes worked on this script for a long time and it changed with the cast; what seemed funny one week got tossed the next. Knowing this while witnessing the final (for now) product, which is polished to a high comic sheen with what seem the highest of choices, really makes one appreciate the process.  

Moliere the playwright wrote these plays for Moliere the actor and he always played Sganarelle, who is the lecherous, cowardly, ludicrous hero; so, while playing the cuckold or the screw-up sidekick, it gave him license to send up others, too, and Moliere took no prisoners.  


It is de rigueur if you’ve got a M.D. after your name, since it is essentially a send-up of the medical profession, which wasn’t exactly a scientifically based undertaking in the 17th C.  

"It is the best trade out," Sganarelle tells us. "Payment comes whether we kill or cure. No responsibility rests upon us; we may hack about as we please the stuff given us to work upon. If a patient dies, it is his own fault, never ours. Lastly, dead men, of all people the most discreet, tell no tales of the doctor who has sent them to their long account." 


Adapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes 

Directed by Christopher Bayes 

Berkeley Repertory Theatre (a co-production with Yale Rep)  

Through March 25 

Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley (510) 647–2949 

Featuring Julie Briskman, Liam Craig, Steven Epp, Renata Friedman, Allen Gilmore, 

Chivas Michael, Greg C. Powers, Jacob Ming-Trent, Justine Williams, and Robertson 


Designed by Aaron Halva (music), Matt Saunders (scenic), Kristin Fiebig (costumes), 

Yi Zhao (lighting), and Ken Goodwin (sound)