Imaginary Invalid: A French Farce in Topanga for Summer Evening Giggles

One of my favorite things about summer is outdoor theater. There is something magical about seeing a live show under the stars, and Topanga’s Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum has long been one of LA's most delightful places to experience this magic. The rustic theater’s Sunday morning program for young children is a summertime staple, but choosing the right show to share with bigger kids from the Botanicum's evening line-up can be trickier. It would be understandable to assume that you could skip the 17th century Moliere play, for example, but you’d be missing out on some major giggles—including the biggest collection of high-brow fart jokes I have ever witnessed. Scoff if you like, but any play that makes my middle schooler laugh himself breathless makes my recommend list.

No familiarity with Moliere or French farce is required to enjoy The Imaginary Invalid; in fact, as we wiped our tears of laughter at the end of the night, my son asked me if it was a new play. The translation certainly feels modern, and the staging keeps the action feeling relevant, and even at times local. Theater owner Ellen Geer is at the top of her game as the dotty hypochondriac knocking back every natural remedy you could find in the aisles at Whole Foods, and identifying the fumes as they reemerge from her other end. Her real-life daughter Willow Geer pulls off just the right amount of teen melodrama to keep the laughs rolling as her hormonal, lovesick daughter; and Melora Marshall's sarcastic running commentary as the exasperated maid also hits the sweet spot of tween eye-rolling humor. A steady stream of supporting characters parades through, from an evil, toy-boy step-father to a lisping suitor who thinks he’s a chicken, and the quick pace sets us up for the next gag as soon as the guffaws die down from the last. The show's flat-out silliness appealed to my tween on every level—including the naughty delight he took in being in the know on several rounds of adult innuendo.

This is the one key parental warning about The Imaginary Invalid, and what makes me call the show’s target age middle school and above: sexual innuendo runs a close second to fart jokes in this show. There is no actual nudity or graphic language, but there is also no room for doubt about what connects the older woman and her young husband; and the two young lovers in the story are clearly desperate to marry so that they can consummate their mutual attraction. Most pointedly, in the second half of the show, two characters are seen running up the hillside behind the stage, casting clothes off as they run. We don't see them directly engage in the act, but when they disappear from sight, a slim tree behind the set begins to shake furiously. If my son were younger, this might have been awkward to watch together. At 12, he was tickled pink (literally pink) that he was in on the joke, and deliciously scandalized that grown-ups in elegant costumes were actually acting this wickedness out right there in front of him.

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Melora Marshall and Ellen Geer

Part of the joy of a show at the Theatricum Botanicum is the setting, of course. It's not for nothing that the theater has a prime spot on our bucket list of 100 Things To Do with LA Kids Before They Grow Up. Bring layers in case of a cool evening, though the lay of the land protects from chilly breezes most nights. There are many options for picnic spots before (and after) the show, and the grounds are a real delight to wander. Be sure to look for the garden surrounding the bust of a familiar face in TV history—theater founder Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton.

The Imaginary Invalid plays through October 2, in repertory with the theater's other shows. Check the schedule for specific dates and times. Ticket prices are $10 for kids and start at $25 for adults. Parking is free either in the theater's lot or along Topanga Canyon.

Photos by Miriam Geer