In a back room of a small Chinatown gallery, a cadre of charismatic performers use the 90 minutes at their command to create a kinetic spectacle full of humor, music and feeling. The FlexCo production of The Flying Doctor, herein subtitled “Over and Over and Over,” is a raucous and, in the end, surprisingly melancholy take on Moliere’s 1645 Commedia dell’Arte play Le Médecin Volant.
The play begins as many of its time do, with a love-struck gentleman, a would-be bride just out of reach, and an absurd scheme to win her. In this case, the gentleman suiter, Valere (Patrick Brady), entreats his foolish manservant Sganarelle (Josh Wolonick) to play the part of a wise doctor philosopher to trick Gorgibus (Anya Gibian) into sending his “ill” daughter Lucile (Robyn Adele Anderson) away to recooperate instead of marrying the old man Villebrequin (Michael Doliner). Lucile’s cousin Sabine (Kat Blackwood) is the mastermind behind the plot, though a dubious Lawyer (Jessica Greenwald) and Gorgibus’s servant Gross Rene (Sara Jecko) sense there may be something amiss.
The energy that this cast brings to the show is fantastic, though special mention goes to Wolonick who reminded me of nothing less than Robin Williams at his most manic. Pitching himself around the room, leaping and breaking out strange voices, Wolonick was whirling like a dervish, his high energy bordering on rabid frothing at the mouth. It was easy to feel concerned for his wellbeing in the small, warm room, watching his hair grow ever damper from the amount of sweat pouring from him. The bigness of his performance, however, felt like appropriate homage to the absurdity of the source material, even at its most over-the-top. Big performances were what Moliere’s audiences came for, and in that it doesn’t disappoint.
Blackwood and Brady also gave performances of note. They are both gifted singers, and it was a pleasure to sit in such close proximity as they belted out song after song. Anderson, whose work would be familiar to fans of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, was absent the night we visited, but understudy Ashley Gunsteens covered the part dutifully and with a certain deco-age charm.
As is often the case with such stories, the ingénue love interest is rather less interesting a character than the other women present. As a love object she is supposed to be pretty and vulnerable, which she is, and not too bold or clever, which she isn’t. Because of the nature of the role, the character has the potential to fall flat. This company, however, takes advantage of that built-in weakness and uses it to turn the entire play on its head.
Once the show has moved through all the scenes and several pop and rock interludes to its inevitably illogical but tidy ending, the whole thing reboots. The actors take their starting places and begin again. This second time through, however, chaos begins to take over. Like the proverbial butterfly’s wings, a small modification in performance here and a differently delivered line there sets off ripples that grow bigger and more significant as the piece goes on. By the end of the second interpretation and the beginning of the third, the whole thing is falling into chaos that only some of the characters even notice.
The actors are, for the most part, double- and triple-threats. They sing and play instruments while delivering lines directly to the onlookers arrayed around the periphery. If those deliveries seem a bit casual or amateurish at times, the musical and vocal talent is undeniable. With an electric guitar, cello, violin, keyboard, and percussion represented, the room fills with joyful noise time and again.
Props must be given also to costume designer Ellyn Pyne for the Lawyer’s fabulous scroll coat and Sabine’s multilayered confection of a costume. Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader played nicely on the repetition theme by aligning mirrors so that characters standing between them were replicated ad infinitum from the viewer’s perspective.
Initial thoughts on the play included words like zany and madcap — and referential, as the versed pop culture buff will pick up on lines quoted from sources like When Harry Met Sally and Les Miserables — but the piece is reflective and has visceral qualities as well. The intensity of the eye contact, the way Sganarelle has of getting right into your personal space, the whisper of Sabine’s skirts stirring the air as she passes, all lend the experience an intimacy that lingers in the mind. Happily, the champagne helps.
The Flying Doctor by Moliere (Over and Over and Over)
Playing at Central Booking
21 Ludlow Street, NY
Through June 30, 2016