Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Ladies Who Act: The Ladies of the Camellias

In beginning their season with The Ladies of the Camellias, North Coast Rep demonstrates respect for North Coast audiences, repaid with an entertaining evening in which the audience will also learn some theatre and social history.

This play by the contemporary Los Angeles director Lillian Groag is billed as a farce, among the most satisfying theatrical forms when it works. However, it is also one of the most difficult to write and direct. The pleasures for participants as well as audience of creating waves of riotous laughter, each new one “topping” the last, has been too tempting for many playwrights to resist. (If not for his untimely illness and death, August Wilson’s next play sounded like it was going to be a farce.)

 Some contemporary playwrights have successfully created classic farce (Joe Orton comes to mind) but many have failed. Others have upped the ante by using farcical elements in more politically and socially ambitious plays—Tom Stoppard, for instance. Then there are the influences on writers as well as audiences of the movie hybrids—the Marx Brothers films, slapstick and screwball comedies.

 We have one contemporary play about the theatre that is as close to classic farce as modern ironic drama gets—Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (the movie version, with such luminaries as Carol Burnett, Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, also demonstrates the difficulty of translating stage farce to screen.)

 The play at NCRT is stylistically more complex, and its content is more ambitious. The Ladies of the Camellias is set in late 19th century Paris, when new approaches from Germany, Russia and England were about to create the modern theatre that is the operational basis for the dramatic arts of our time.

 Two formidable actresses towards the end of the age of star-driven drama, Italian diva Eleanora Duse and the French legend, Sarah Bernhardt, were each to appear in the same romance, The Lady of the Camellias by Alexander Dumas (which is also the basis of the famous Greta Garbo film, Camille.)

 Meanwhile, a production of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is opening down the street. This was also an era of social and political turmoil that would eventually lead to World War I and the Communist revolution in Russia. All of these elements bear on the action onstage.

 This history is the substance of this play, surrounded by a variety of verbal as well as physical comedy, from droll Wildean witticisms (“A cynic is a romantic sulking”) to acerbic Noel Cowardly observations (about audiences entertained by a socially-conscious play, who then “go off and vote for the wrong people.”)

 Much of the humor is about theatre, and much of that is based on affectionate cliches about the excesses and vanities of actors, though there are some theatrical in-jokes of the kind that added bonus zest to Shakespeare in Love. Is theatre a playground for the rich, or are actors as socially outcast as anarchists? The roles of art and politics, of thought and feeling, form one of this play’s themes with contemporary resonance.

 Both Michele Shoshani (a veteran Bay Area performer new to the North Coast) as Sarah Bernhardt, and Gloria Montgomery (fresh from her triumph in NCRT’s Broadway Bound) as Duse effectively play these actresses as practical and intelligent, in charge of their legends and aware of the utility of their frivolities. Thanks in part to excellent costuming, Shoshani even looks French, and Montgomery has that Italian glow.

 The male partners (onstage and sometimes off) of these grand actresses were necessary but definitely inferior appurtenances, and Hans Crynock and David Hamilton milk those roles for all their obvious and subtle comedy, and even more subtle pathos. Crynock excels at small hilarious gestures and body language, while Hamilton brings an air of eager earnestness with a touch of sadness that gives his physical comedy another dimension.

As a play, The Ladies of the Camellias has problems. A good farce is like a wind-up toy: the first act winds it up, and it runs amuck in the second. But this play is so long and tries to do so much (perhaps too much) that it forces a single hysterical speed from the beginning.

Fortunately, Lonnie Blankenchip as Alexander Dumas arrives in time to admirably slow it down and anchor it for the audience. After a frenetic and excessive start (at least I find the miming of the lines more annoying than funny), both the gifted Theresa Ireland and the skillful Bob Wells have their moments. Nobody could make the two syllables of “password” funnier than Wells does.

 Without Nathan Pierce’s solid performance as the anarchist “Ivan,” this play with a large cast of differentiated characters and more than the usual amount of information to absorb, would have been unintelligible. Edward Olson provides a bracing turn—I won’t give away his surprise, but it enacts (and mocks) the classic farce mechanism of the Deus ex machina, the sudden solution dropping from the sky.

 A handsome set (framed by evocative, Beardsley-style posters) and the other elements of presentation support an audience-pleasing production. There were opening weekend problems of lines and timing that the actors should overcome as the run goes on.

 Director Carol Escobar had to deal with a play that sprawls in time and stage space, but is too interconnected to cut (and the playwright might react as the Blankenchip’s Dumas does to the idea of cutting text: as if it were a knife wound.) But a tighter play would have encouraged more differentiated and effective pacing and focus. Still, the opening Saturday night audience followed the action and had a good time, and subsequent audiences should, too.