Note to Bay Area theatergoers: Prepare to laugh. Steven Epp is back, and he’s funnier than ever.
Epp is currently center stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, playing the title role in “A Doctor in Spite of Himself.”
Moliere’s 1666 comedy, re-imagined for contemporary audiences in a splendid adaptation by Epp and Christopher Bayes, hit the stage on opening night in a brilliant mashup of physical comedy, topical references, songs, slapstick and sight gags.
Directed by Bayes, this co-production by Berkeley Rep and Yale Repertory Theatre offers the latest star turn by one of this country’s most inventive comic actors.
In the role of Sganarelle — a character Moliere himself played — Epp reaffirms his status as clown extraordinaire. A former co-director of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Minnesota-based actor excels as the goofy woodcutter pressed into service as a medical man when the local aristocrat’s daughter fakes a mysterious illness to avoid an arranged marriage.
Bayes’ staging frames the action as a Punch and Judy puppet show come to life. As the play begins, Sganarelle and his shrill wife, Martine (Justine Williams), trade words and blows.
It’s the aggrieved Martine who sets him up, sending two messengers (the well-paired Liam Craig and Jacob Ming-Trent) to lure him to the house of Geronte (a grandiose Allen Gilmore), where Lucinde (a mute, fright-wigged Renata Friedman) languishes.
Against her father’s wishes, she’s sick with love for the dandyish Leandre (Chivas Michael, clad in velvet and oozing poetry).
As Sganarelle embraces his assignment (“I haven’t played one on TV, but I feel just like a real doctor”), Bayes and Epp skewer medical quackery, pop music, election-year politics and more.
Bad puns, bawdy jokes and rimshots flow from the stage; Aaron Halva’s songs (played by Robertson Witmer and Greg C. Powers) include a number for dancing doctors rhyming “pucker” with “cash only, sucker!”
At the center of it all is Epp, whose incisive voice, whip-crack timing and splendid physicality are nothing short of astonishing.
The actor, who has made indelible impressions at Berkeley Rep in past productions such as “Figaro” and “The Miser,” is in top form here.
“A Doctor in Spite of Himself” has never been considered one of Moliere’s great plays — written as a quick moneymaker, it’s certainly not on the level of “Tartuffe” — but Epp gives it the feel of a small masterpiece.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 25
Tickets: $14.50 to $73
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org