note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
The Baron de Varville…..David Hanbury
Olympe…..P. J. McWhiskers
St. Gauden…..Keith Orr
Monsieur Duval…..James P. Byrne
Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans end their season with his adaptation of Charles Ludlam's adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' CAMILLE, that perennial tearjerker, and once again their star is on the ascendant (coming after their less-than-enchanting ROSEMARY'S BABY). If you must see only one Orphan show, this is the one – it's whoop-up funny and surprisingly poignant.
If you're familiar with the Garbo film version or Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, the plot remains the same: Marguerite Gautier, a Parisian courtesan, suffers from consumption and compensates by living a gay and carefree life. (She is known as the Lady of the Camellias, named after the only flower her health permits her to wear.) An adoring young man, Armand Duval, offers Marguerite his undying love, which, to her own surprise, she accepts. They flee to the country and live an idyllic life, but, while Armand is away, Armand's stern father arrives to convince Marguerite to give up his son for fear of a family scandal. Marguerite, heartbroken, leaves Armand under the guise of no longer loving him and returns to Paris. Armand, not knowing the real reason behind Marguerite's sacrifice, follows and disgraces her in public, but the lovers are reunited in the final scene, where she dies in his arms.
LA TRAVIATA has long overshadowed Dumas' sentimental chestnut, which languished for decades until the late Charles Ludlum (1943-87) reactivated it with his own Ridiculous Theatre version and played the Lady herself to great acclaim. In doing so, Mr. Ludlum not only sent up CAMILLE but tenderly revealed it to be both a still-great "vehicle" for a personality actress and a well-written play – I would say a "well-made" play, but that once-revered phrase is now used as a curse, not a compliment (as if a tightly-constructed plot ever hurt a script). (When I lived in New York, I missed Mr. Ludlum's Camille, but I was fortunate to see his THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP, SALAMMBÔ and THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE the year before he died; he was a great artist.) For the Orphan production, Mr. Landry has revised Mr. Ludlum's revision and after looking over Mr. Ludlum's script, I prefer Mr. Landry's version. Yes, there are the usual beaver shots and cocaine highs (Orphan trademarks, I assume), but Mr. Ludlum's script is rather staid compared to the zingy cartoon that Mr. Landry parades before us. Dumas' "well-made" plot serves as a trampoline for the Orphans to soar into true outrageousness and still be there for them to land on without a thud; this is the first Orphan show I've seen that can truly be called "theatre", not just a night of camp in the basement of the Ramrod.
Since the character of Marguerite is already, in Orphan terms, a "slut", Mr. Landry is free to concentrate on giving a PERFORMANCE – and the Lady is the perfect role for his larger-than-life personality (and physique). Mr. Landry's strength has always been a combination of sweetness, vulnerability and been-there-done-that knowingness, and here he displays them with an actor's delight and an artist's sensitivity. (Marguerite's scene with Armand's father is played quite seriously, due to its underlying theme of the social outcast in a puritanical society.) Mr. Landry still mugs and is still a bit of a klutz in his physical comedy, but his Marguerite made me bark loud and often; might he make me weep, someday? (A priceless moment: Marguerite tosses a camellia out the window – watch Mr. Landry's facial reactions as it falls unseen to the ground like a ton of bricks crashing through several floors of glass.)
And Dumas' story transforms the rest of the Orphans, making them a true ensemble. Among them, Tom Lowe (Armand) is an old-fashioned matinee idol, boyishly handsome, and he declaims his love to Marguerite with just the right touch of breathless ardor. Charlie Fineran outdoes himself in grotesquerie as the snaggle-toothed, flatulent Prudence, looking for all the world like Milton Berle in his own drag days; the wonderful Richard Buckley is wonderful still as little Nichette (forever spritzing others due to her wearing a retainer), and Afrodite is sassy and sensual as the maid Nanine. Between scene changes, Afrodite and Mr. Lowe step before the curtain to beautifully sing, respectively, "I've Got to Use My Imagination" and "All By Myself" – and they stop the show, too. (Sit on the outer left aisle, and Mr. Lowe might even sit on your lap as a bonus.)
The eye-popping gowns are by Lisa Simpson, Verna Turbulence, Penny Champagne and L. Santa Maria of Framingham (!); Mr. Landry looks adorable in his sausage curls, and, in a witty take on 1950s poodle skirts, his Marguerite wears a plaid skirt with a Scottie Dog motif when out in the countryside.
As Marguerite expires in Armand's arms, little Nichette utters, "Toodle-oo, Marguerite." I hope it will not be "Toodle-oo" for this CAMILLE at the end of its run; may Mr. Landry keep this production always in his repertory, for it is most enjoyable – to be honest, I don't see how he can top himself (no pun intended.)
Recently I went back for a second helping of Ryan Landry’s CAMILLE, which has only a few weekends left to run, and if my previous scribbles for this show didn’t send you scurrying for tickets, then hopefully this one will: friends (of all sexes and preferences), Mr. Landry’s CAMILLE is currently one of the funniest shows in town – right up there with Lyric Stage’s sterling LEND ME A TENOR (which is also closing soon). The script, actors (all male) and production are still the same, but during these past few weeks Mr. Landry, James P. Byrne and their clowns have dug in and struck pure Gold (Dust Orphans), and what was once a perfectly hilarious CAMILLE has now become a hilariously perfect one.
Granted, a large part of this sudden leap to the sublime comes from Mr. Landry & Company having often performed together in true give-and-take (the Orphans are one of the area’s few repertory companies, are they not?); and, as I scribbled before, their having the still-solid frame of the old Dumas plot helps to keep their unique brand of zaniness firmly in place. But now Mr. Landry & Company have now begun to color and shade their CAMILLE; lovingly bringing out the stage conventions of a bygone era and then just as lovingly sending them up (when Marguerite expires in Armand’s arms and the lisping Nichette sprays her with a solemn “Toodle-oo, Marguerite,” the grieving Armand has enough presence of mind to tenderly brush the spittle off his beloved’s face – CURTAIN). What the audience might see as “camping” is really a throwback to the blood-and-thunder, hand-to-heart acting of Victorian melodrama before Realism and “the Method” drove it out into the cold, cold snow – and it is most enjoyable. Perhaps the true hero of CAMILLE’s success is Mr. Byrne, who has directed this chestnut with an unerring eye for each swoon, embrace, costume and piece of décor (the lighting for Marguerite’s death scene, for example, beautifully evokes the garish footlights of a century ago) and to orchestrate and guide along the Orphans’ bawdiness, raunch and – dare I say it? – pathos. If I single out Mr. Byrne as Our Hero, the proof is in his own fine performance as the stern Monsieur Duval, played very much in period (no laughter here) and giving Mr. Landry the necessary bedrock to crash Marguerite’s carefree life on (but why doesn’t Mr. Byrne join his cast in their well-earned curtain calls?).
And Mr. Landry has been transformed during these past few weeks. The anything-goes quality of his acting has now been tempered: if he still mugs, his rubber face quickly snaps back to a heroine’s serenity. If he still does his pratfalls, he no longer gives the impression he goes home black-and-blue from them. And he has learned how to Make an Entrance as a true leading lady while subtly acknowledging his cheering audience. (I’m still stamping my feet for Mr. Landry’s Lysistrata.) Mr. Lowe (Armand), Mr. Fineran (Prudence), Mr. Buckley (Nichette) and Afrodite (Nanine) are still glorious, with some delightful new “bits” here and there (though some are not for the easily offended), but this time around I was thrilled to see the supporting members of the ensemble now coming into their own – David Hanbury’s serpentine Baron de Varville, P. J. McWhiskers’ catty Olympe (an Ugly Stepsister right out of a British pantomime) and Keith Orr and Riccardo Rodriguez as the obligatory fops. Bless ‘em all – what a great ensemble!
So, what are you waiting for?