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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Round House Theatre is launching a U.S. premiere to celebrate it's 2005 season and the start of Blake Robinson's tenure as its new Artistic Director. Camille, Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux Camélias, is an earthy, gritty narrative of a prostitute who gives up her heart and life to an aristocratic young man during the mid-19th century in Paris, France. The novel is a somewhat autobiographical account of the affair of the young M. Dumas and Marie Duplessis, a young courtesan with whom the writer became romantically involved when he lived on his father's estate in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Marie Duplessis had been a poor country girl who worked her way into French society by being a mistress to a series of wealthy and powerful men. Six months after her and Dumas' affair ended, Mademoiselle Duplessis died of tuberculosis. Shortly after her death , Dumas published his account of their love affair, which had been widely known throughout societal circles. And like Marguerite Gautier's belongings in Camille, Marie Duplessis' belongings were auctioned off after her death and drew a great deal of interest from curiosity seekers.
A few side notes of clarification may be in order. Alexandre Dumas, fils author of La Dame aux Camélias is the son of Alexandre Dumas, père the noted author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and many other classic French works. Dumas fils also wrote a play based upon his best selling novel which romanticized Marguerite Gautier in a way the novel did not. Verdi's opera La traviata is based upon Dumas' novel. And there have been a myriad number of films and adaptations of both La Dame aux Camélias and La traviata.
Mr. Bartlett has subtitled his play After La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils to make clear that this is not simply "a close translation of an existing playtext." The majority of the dialogue is from Dumas' own novel.
The director has his characters address the audience as well as each other. He has also pulled the humor out of the story in an attempt to provide an interesting and wonderfully practical view of Marguerite, the profession with which she support herself and the self-sacrifice she makes in accepting the love of a young man who is unable to support her without his family's permission. Bartlett's Marguerite is a heavy drinker and smoker whospeaks with a sailor's vocabulary. She hides almost nothing about herself. Thus men swoon and fall in love with her and women despise, yet envy her. Dr. Koreff, her friend and physician, and her faithful maid Nanine are her closest associates. While her friend, Mme. Prudence Duvernoy, sticks with her so long as Marguerite has money to spend and parties to attend.
When the earnest Armand Duva falls in love with Marguerite, she is simply intrigued by his abject devotion to her. When he provides a bit of pity to her illness, she falls in love with him and their love becomes a sort of obsession -- the one thing keeping her from succumbing to the tuberculosis which is slowly killing her.
As Marguerite gives up her lovers and income to take Armand to the country and spend a summer solely with him, she must begin to sell off all of her possessions to support them. And just as Marguerite begins to believe that there will be a happy ending to their story, Armand's father M. Duval, visits to ask her to make the ultimate sacrifice and leave his son because good society will never accept their marriage and because with Marguerite's association to the Duval family, Armand's 18 year old sister will most likely lose her fiancé. It's this final realization that she controls the fate of another woman that pushes Marguerite to her fateful decision.
Director Blake Robinson's debut at Round House Theatre is impressive one. With a stellar design team and talented cast he has developed an unsentimental and stirring production.
James Kronzer's skewed set is emblematic of the double standard that women of the time period endured. The rich colors and fixtures create a sense of luxury, while the empty frames that hang on Marguerite's walls give a sense of the emptiness of her life. Rosemary Pardee's costumes are wonderfully detailed. The fiery effects that represent the French countryside are beautiful. JJ Kaczynski's projections of scene titles illuminated above the stage -- a nod to Verdi's opera and the various silent films of Camille -- are quite fun. And Martin Desjardins sound design enhances the mood of the story.
As "The Lady of the Camelias" Angela Reed captures Marguerite's strength in her performance. Whether throwing out an insult, knocking back a glass of champagne or shooing everyone out of the room so she can collapse into a coughing fit, Ms. Reed presents a woman who has had to fend for herself and has done so with the only commodities she had available: her looks, intelligence and wit. Yet at the same time she maintains an inner softness so that the final sacrifice is believable and within character. Her final scene of writing letters to Armand is riveting.
Aubrey Deeker captures Armand Duval's immaturity and earnestness as well as his lack of awareness-- almost too well, since it's hard to imagine Marguerite falling in love with him. This, however, could be due to the way Niel Bartlett has written a complex love affair in an extremely short amount of stage time. The pivotal moment that Marguerite declares as the point upon which she began to love Armand is not really given the appropriate weight so that the audience realizes what has occurred. Thus the passionate love scenes seem to lack some substance.
In another charismatic and quirky performance, Sarah Marshall is the ever-present Prudence Duvernoy. Marguerite's neighbor and seeming friend and the main voice of dissension to the couple's affair. Ms. Marshall's performance shows anintuitive ability to know when to stop and switch gears at a moment's notice, whether it's with a line, a facial expression or gesture.
Rounding out the cast, Mitchell Hébert creates a caring Dr. Koreff and Vanessa Vaughn provides a wonderfully self-absorbed Olympe, the young woman who becomes the "new Marguerite Gautier." Dan Manning's stage presence creates a M. Duval who is threatening and insulting, while Kathryn Kelley is the beleaguered, yet always caring maid Nanine. Matthew Detmer Gaston is the comic relief.
Roundhouse's production of Bartlett's script is one more gem in what is starting off to be a very enjoyable theatre season and definitely worth a trip to their Bethesda space.
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