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Les Deux Camilles


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Les Deux Camilles

Cloud 42
at Body Politic Theatre

Just as Bailiwick Repertory has recently reworked the legends of Saint Joan and Don Juan, Cloud 42 takes on the saga of Marie Duplessis--the original for La Dame aux Camelias--in "Les Deux Camilles," two plays that radically reexamine the 1848 novel and 1852 play by Alexandre Dumas fils. Camille (Deflowered), a cluttered, cumbersome world premiere written and staged by Chicagoan Jill Daly, deconstructs the tragedy--the plight of a woman "sold" by society--Dumas exploited. Lighter but much stronger, Charles Ludlam's Camille: A Tearjerker is the late master's campy but ultimately reverent spoof of Dumas' deathless melodrama. It's that rarity, a comedy that can reduce you to tears.

Both treatments seem to assume that modern audiences can't take the tragedy straight. But you wonder why: tear-stained deaths in recent films--Tom Hanks's in Philadelphia and Deborah Winger's in Shadowlands--take us right back to Dumas. Plus ca change . . .

Daly means to strip Dumas' story, based on his own ill-fated affair with a famous courtesan, of its unearned romance, exposing the true-life liaison as obsessive and one-sided. No languid martyr, the flesh-and-blood Marie Duplessis was a self-made woman who prostituted herself up the ranks till she met Dumas (love child of the author of The Three Musketeers). Their affair lasted less than a year, foundering on Dumas' jealousy and his rage at having to depend on a woman for money as well as love. He left to travel abroad; Marie died. Five months later, Dumas had finished the opportunistic, guilt-driven novel, renaming the heroine Marguerite, that launched the legend, including Verdi's 1853 La Traviata.

Though Daly obviously respects the power of the play and the opera to move us, and draws heavily on both works, Camille (Deflowered) bitterly questions Camille's sacrifice and our adulation of it. Christiaan Pretorius's elegant set is appropriately dominated by a huge canopy bed that seems to suck the character into its maw. Much of Daly's play is a strangely faithful enactment of Dumas' script (minus the deathbed reconciliation), but she adds stiff, stylized depictions of an 1847 auction of Marie's effects and sardonic scenes in which Dumas/Armand and his sexist friends put down women. The self-pitying, hypocritical Armand calls Marguerite an "angel on the scrap heap" and "a slave to her senses," and calls himself a "moral influence"!

Alas, that's the main critical gloss Daly provides. Most of the two-and-a-half-hour Camille (Deflowered) is a taxing bore, underinspired, overacted, and slow to the point of stupefaction. Daly so drags out the opening party, with the characters waltzing frenetically to Verdi's brindisi, and closing death scenes that she's forced to reduce Dumas' middle acts to a slick, melodramatic play-within-a-play, a histrionic spoof of Dumas' original: Marguerite improbably watches her own story performed--including her coming death! This odd compression would be startlingly surreal if it didn't seem so desperate.

Vast stretches of Daly's work are consumed by turgid moments in which characters sit, stare, and wait or emote into the wings. There's little passion in the straight Dumas scenes and less in Daly's attempts to record Marguerite's victimization. For all its pretense, this revisionist Camille establishes no real independence from its source; it dwindles into enervating comments on a play so drained of its power we've ceased to care.

Direction by someone other than the playwright might at least have kept the show to less than a geological era. Daly's cast seem to move in molasses. Resembling a cross between Merle Oberon and Vivien Leigh, Kimberly Bruce as Marguerite communicates the patented neurasthenic air of a sick, jaded woman afraid to believe in love. But that's all she conveys: the love scenes between Bruce and Mickle Maher's tepid Armand are void of ardor, enmity, or any other genuine emotion. If that's the point, it's too paltry and distant to prove.

The rest of the cast play parasites, rivals, gossips, and other detritus of Marguerite's predatory world. They never disgrace themselves, but neither can they make this dead camellia bloom.

Camille: A Tearjerker both undermines and elevates the original, radically altering the casting but perfectly preserving the play's spirit of sublime renunciation. Ludlam's travesty is a mine field of physical gags--shameless mugging, slow burns, anachronistic props (Chinese take-out), grand melodramatic gestures. And then there's the verbal tomfoolery: awful puns ("Get your aspidistra out of here!"), stolen and filthy jokes, torch-song lyrics, parodies of purple passion ("I would rather die for your love than pay 50 francs for it"), B-movie cliches (including pungent allusions to The Women), and dishy, bitchy girl talk too self-parodying to be misogynistic. Combination gold digger, dominatrix, and dying diva, Ludlam's Camille is a delicious study in excess ("I'm traveling light--no heart")--and by the end, almost as touching as Violetta in Traviata.

Beneath the hilarious gay persiflage and sometimes cruel campiness is a poigance so bittersweet it can curdle the laughs; Marguerite calls it "a gaiety sadder than grief." This is a play that gets wildly silly, sobers up fast, goes crazy again, and still breaks your heart by the end. Ludlam's Marguerite/Camille, a role he played to heartrending perfection, anticipates Arnold Beckoff, the self-protective drag queen of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy; she's the archetypal homosexual who lives for pleasure (read: promiscuity) but finds love, alas too late. Unlike Camille (Deflowered), Ludlam's gentle send-up has no political pretensions. Still, reversing the heroine's gender makes its own point: Marguerite's helplessness as a 19th-century woman is even more pronounced when played by a man.

There's an irony to the play too, missing when it was written in 1973: like Camille, Ludlam died young, of AIDS in 1987. Camille's desperate clinging to life just as she finds its meaning is a powerful instance of art anticipating life.

Patrick Trettenero's faithful, fun revival is a textbook case of orchestrated anarchy, in which the centrifugal impulse to go over the top is countered by the centripetal power of one performance. With his tenor voice undisguised and his hairy chest peeping through the decolletage, Jeffrey Hughes is masterful as Marguerite, a triumph of controlled comedy. Recalling Beatrice Lillie at her dippiest, Bette Davis at her toughest, and Fierstein at his driest, Hughes's characterization is nonetheless vastly original, his crisp, cunning delivery punctuated by whiplash asides and perfectly played pauses. Above all, his Camille never forfeits his/her dignity--if anything, the farce that surrounds Marguerite reveals her nobility even more than if it had been played straight.

Brian Goodman handles Armand with unshakable seriousness, even getting laughs from the flower that Marguerite tells him he can return when it withers--he crushes it right there so he can spend the night. Though his ardor is almost goofy, Goodman anchors his grand amour in real emotions--passion, jealousy, remorse. So does Danne Taylor, who plays Armand's all-demanding father with a solid conviction worthy of Verdi.

Marguerite's coterie are among the nastiest grotesques ever to crawl out from under a Parisian rock, and Trettenero's merry crew scrunch themselves into leering Daumier caricatures, whether cavorting to a zany "Freres Jacques" or stretching their rubber faces into human cartoons. Among the standouts are Matt McDonald's bilious Baron, a suitor who salivates on Marguerite's crinoline; Teria Gartelos, playing Marguerite's chief confidante like a Victorian valley girl; Robin Baber, a gossip-mad milliner ferociously frilled and furbelowed; and Amelia Barrett, a mincing tragedienne of a chambermaid who affects a weird Clouseau-like French accent.

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