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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Ladies of theCamellias
By Laura Hitchcock
Playwright/director Lillian Groag calls her play a "divertissement." It's an apt description for this witty comedy that lies somewhere west of farce.
It's true that Sarah Bernhardt did lend her Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris to Italian star Eleanora Duse who not only rivaled Bernhardt in reputation but actually played the same roles on the same stage with the same sets. Groag has invented incidents and meetings between the two prima donnas and the men in their lives and uses the mise en scene for a number of wonderful apercus about theatre, actors, writers and that strange thing rumored to be on the horizon called a director.
Written 16 years ago but revised and rewritten, Groag's impelling concept has become gruesomely timely. A Russian anarchist, Ivan (Triney Sandoval), shows up with a bomb and threatens to blow the theatre up unless two of his fellow rebels are released from jail. He announces that he will hold both Bernhardt (Victoria Carroll) and Duse (Melinda Peterson) hostage. "Surely," says Bernhardt, drawing herself up haughtily, "my life should be enough!"
The play begins with the incomparable Tony Abatemarco as M. Benoit making haste to change the white camellias on the set to Duse's favorite red roses. Alexandre Dumas, Fils, (Mark Bramhall) who wrote The Lady of the Camellias, is driven to distraction by both actresses's interpreations of the tragic heroine based on his real life love. His complaints don't stop at the roses and the colorful shawl that one wants to flaunt in her dying moments. There's also the fact that Bernhardt has more energy at the end of her death scene than at the beginning and that Duse is always melancholy and never the gay courtesan he envisioned.
Bernhardt simply sneers at the author's plea for a simpler performance, insisting that it's the heightened life presented in extraordinary ways that the audience wants to see. Paradoxically, Bramhall's Dumas makes a kiss of the hand as show-stopping as a court curtsey in a curtain call.
We can't see Bernhardt's alcoholic cheetah whom we hear growling offstage or the drunken poet D'Annunzio sleeping it off in Duse's dressing room, but we do see lots of the competing Armands -- Bernhardt's small feisty one who has the unfortunate name of Gustave-Hippolite Worms (Louis Lotorto) and Duse's Flavio Ando (Marcelo Tubert) who is tall, distinguished but frazzled to his last nerve. These Mutt and Jeff characters are among Groag's best concepts, as they compare horror stories about their stage and boudoir treatment at the cruel little hands of their leading ladies. Worms comes out on top, though not literally as every time Bernhardt embraces him, he is smothered in her feather boa and he keeps falling out of bed into the coffin she always travels with. The ultimate injury according to Worms is that "she only coughs on MY LINES."
The appearance of Ivan with his bomb introduces a serious note, and not just because bomb threats are no longer a laughing matter to be found in divertissements. You see, Ivan brings up many of the anarchist/Communist complaints about the arts. How can actors justify immersing themselves in what they call "civilization" when people are starving? Then he brings up that old "opiate of the people" line that Marx used about religion, to declare that the audience is becoming "drunk on beauty, drunk on sorrow."
Ivan even has the temerity to tell the divas that they're playing their parts all wrong. The audience should be thinking, not feeling. This ancient dispute is as old as theatre and, like divas and bomb threats, it will apparently never go away. The theater people never really come up with good answers for Ivan, though it's obvious that they believe that neither the theatr orits appeal are in danger from the perils of didacticism. We could almost feel some sympathy for Ivan, if it weren't that he knows suspiciously too much about theatre terms and ways.
Act II seems over-long, perhaps because it's repetitive. However, Groag, a perfect director for this sort of steely fluff, is lively, imaginative and endlessly diverting.
The able cast is anchored by Melinda Peterson as a piercing Duse and Victoria Carroll as a commanding Bernhardt. Mark Bramhall makes a dapper distraught Dumas, Louis Lotort is a feisty Worms, Marcelo Tubert is dashingly devastated as Flavio, Tony Abatemarco's M. Benoit is so infused with energy that this subsidiary part becomes as important to us as it does to him. Triney Sandoval tends to scream his Ivan's lines and though that's defensible, variations would be inventive and welcome. Julia Coffey plays her aspiring actress as a whirling dervish and Chip Heller makes a heroic Cyrano, who arrives like Tarzan in the nick of time.
Special kudos to A. Jeffrey Schoenberg for his gorgeous costumes. Tom Buderwitz's elegant set opens onto the brick prop-lined back wall of a theatre, underlining the reality behind this particular opiate. Jeremy Pivnick's lighting design is used to highlight the actresses's key moments as surely as if they'd done it themselves.
Groag is headed for New York this week to cast the production for Yale Repertory Theatre and perhaps a subsequent New York performance.
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