Preview: Bradbury Returns to Pittsburgh as Moliere in His Own Award-Winning Comedy

By Sharon Eberson

Simon Bradbury and Andrew Paul go way back. So it’s somehow fitting that they both wound up connecting while both were in Las Vegas, even if their artistic collaboration remains on Pittsburgh stages.

20-plus years ago, Bradbury, a frequent presence on Canadian stages, appeared in Hobson’s Choice, directed by Paul for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. For that play, Bradbury and costar Derdriu Ring shared the title of 2010 Post-Gazette Performer of the Year.

Simon Bradbury and Michael Patrick Trimm rehearse Kinetic Theatre’s production of The Illustrious Invalid(Photo courtesy of Kinetic Theatre)

Flash forward to 2022, and Bradbury’s award-winning play, The Illustrious Invalid, gets its world premiere for Paul’s Kinetic Theatre, June 9-16 on City Theatre’s Mainstage. The play has Bradbury starring as the master of French comedy, Moliere, reunited with his past and current costar, Derdriu Ring.

Oh, and the Las Vegas reunion between director and actor-writer? It’s where Paul makes his home – he moved there just after Hobson’s Choice finished its run. And it’s also where Bradbury performs with a rotational year on/year off gig at The Beatles’ LOVE in Las Vegas. He plays a staunch opponent of the show’s rock ‘n’ roll-fueled culture.

Bradbury, a long-time Shaw and Stratford Festival actor, is experienced and learned in theatrical traditions, but you couldn’t say he is bound by them.

About the time his friend was moving to Las Vegas, Bradbury’s fascination with the clown archetype took him in a new direction, and he joined a Cirque du Soleil touring company. After traveling through the United States and Canada – with a hiatus during the pandemic shutdown – he began his regular role in LOVE.

All that time, he was in Cirque clown mode. Bradbury’s The Illustrious Invalid was brewing.

He had been working on the play for a while when he entered the 2017 Liverpool Hope Playwriting Competition – the second largest of its kind in his native UK and one dedicated to comedy.

Bradbury entered as a lark right at the deadline.

He forgot about it until he heard he was a finalist.

“There were five or six of us, and it was a big ‘do, plus a big cash prize of £10,000! That was $16,000 or more then. And I ended up winning the damn thing! Everyone was there. The mayor of Liverpool … It was shocking.”

Even after his win, he thought little about his play being produced. “But he’s mad enough to do it,” said Bradbury, nodding his head toward Paul, seated in another part of a Squirrel Hill Starbucks.

The Illustrious Invalid is an often madcap comedy about the man considered to be the father of the social comedy, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, aka Moliere.

“The play itself is about a man trying to put on a play, even though he is going to die from consumption at some point,” Bradbury explained. “It’s actually a comedy about the obsessive personality.”

Moliere presses on against all odds and advice, the hounding of everyone around him, worrying about his and their own salvation.

Bradbury’s work was inspired by seeing a BBC adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1930s drama about Moliere’s death, which was a thinly veiled criticism of Stalin. That play includes Moliere’s death in 1673 – he collapsed during a performance of his own The Imaginary Invalid and was carried home to die at age 51.

“And I thought, there’s something in there. And of course, to write a comedy about it was a challenge, and then to present it, particularly in the time of COVID,” Bradbury said. “But that’s what’s interesting, the timing of it. I wrote the play ten years ago. But a man who is ill from consumption dies of a lung ailment, is a kind of parallel to what is going on now. It becomes a kind of metaphor for just bashing through COVID.”

Moliere, who toiled as an actor for many years before he became a playwright, experienced some success and more than a little controversy in his day.

He enjoyed the patronage of King Louis XIV. Still, the church was none too pleased with some of his subject matter, such as the pious hypocrite, Tartuffe.

“He was a real tough knockabout thespian, and that’s what I find interesting about him,” Bradbury said. “The academics seem to have stolen the rest of it away, because he’s become a theatrical and literary icon. But he was just a geezer who knew he was good on stage and started to write knockabout comedies. The turning point was when he became socially conscious.”

Although Moliere’s comedies could be crude, and there was no sparing of bodily-function humor, some were obvious in taking aim at religion and the medical profession, which could come with a heavy price in the 17th century.

“Most comedies were farcical, but farce has its own agenda,” Bradbury said. “It reminds us that we are not as close to the angels as we think we are, and that’s why the church didn’t like him because they were about the baser side of human behavior.”

Bradbury’s own play is generous with its mention of enemas, in the form of an actor who has played one too many doctors and believes he knows what’s best for dying Moliere. It’s the 17th-century version of, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

“He could have muddled on, making a fortune writing masques for the king,” Bradbury said of Moliere’s short allegorical dramas, performed by masked actors. “But he was compulsive and had to say something about the church and doctors – he ridiculed them all. And that was his fate. The Inquisition wanted to get their hands on him. He was under the king’s protection, but even the king couldn’t protect him after ‘Tartuffe.’ Everything kicked up after that.”

Writing a decade before the French Revolution, Moliere became a symbol of the common man speaking his mind.

“During the Revolution, hard as it is to believe, Molière’s coffin was dug up and, it is said, shown off in Paris, as a kind of morbid celebration of his modest origins and as a rebuke to the Church for its previous persecution of him,” wrote Adam Gopnik in his New Yorker article, “Molière to the Panthéon!”

“Moliere is redeemed not just because his plays are funny, but because he told the truth to power,” Bradbury said. “And that’s exceedingly brave and a story worth telling.”

His battles with censorship are certainly relevant at a time when books are being banned and freedom of expression is constantly under fire.

The more serious undertones of Bradbury’s The Illustrious Invalid include those begging for Moliere to denounce his ties to the theater as a route to salvation and to allow for his burial in consecrated ground.

It’s a key plot point. Moliere is on his last legs but determined to perform his own play, The Imaginary Invalid, for the king. He has no doubt the king will love it and still want to be his protector. But it’s looking like the king isn’t going to show. At the same time, the people around Moliere fear that he might die on stage before he can officially renounce his life as an actor.

“Actors were seen as the devil’s apprentice kind of thing,” Bradbury said.

Moliere, however, refuses, even though he knows that if he doesn’t, his family will suffer consequences when he is gone.

“The tortured genius,” a Bradbury called him, is faced with “the age-old conundrum of work or family, family or work.”

And remember, this also is a comedy, with humor that suits the time period it portrays.

“I couldn’t do Moliere without doing the style for which he was famous,” Bradbury said.

A lot of what’s on paper and onstage is “frankly vulgar and rude,” the writer admitted. “There are a lot of bodily functions. So in the play, the doctor is obsessed with enemas and sticking things in people.”

Derdriu Ring, David Whalen, Simon Bradbury (as Moliere) and Matt DeCaro rehearse a scene from Kinetic Theatre’s production of Bradbury’s The Illustrious Invalid(Photo courtesy of Kinetic Theatre)

Joanna Strapp, Michael Patrick Trimm, Matt DeCaro, Tony Bingham, and David Whalen fill out the cast of Kinetic’s production, it’s second on City Theatre’s campus, following Oscar & Walt in November of last year. This is the hat trick for Whalen – his third Pittsburgh show in quick succession, following Murder on the Orient Express at Pittsburgh Public Theater and Misery at barebones. The set is by Johnmichael Bohach, with costumes by Carnegie Mellon graduate student Grace Kang.

Bradbury was last in Pittsburgh – which he considers one of his artistic homes – in 2015, playing Dr. Watson, with Paul directing and Whalen as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock’s Last Case.

He wants the audiences to get a first look at The Illustrious Invalid to know that his play offers a glimpse into another time, an award-winning comedy, and more.

“It does touch a lot of nerves. It lands in many places that will seem familiar to this new world that we’re in. But the message is hopeful,” Bradbury said. “That in the end, persistence, tenacity, and fortitude always triumph. That’s the message.”

Kinetic Theatre’s The Illustrious Invalid is at City Theatre’s Mainstage, 13 Bingham St., South Side, June 9-16. Details: kinetictheatre.org. Tickets: https://citytheatre.culturaldistrict.org/production/81959 412-431-2489.

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