Anyone can yearn for a life of spontaneous disco raves and cooked partridge for dinner, but it takes a certain class of bon vivant to make it happen. Marguerite Gauthier – the famed courtesan with a big heart and a tragic destiny – practically invented the class by herself. In Camille, Washington Shakespeare Company has cooked up a modern drag interpretation of the Gauthier story, and the result arrives much like the character herself: goodhearted, thoroughly charming, and peppered with some forgivable flaws.
Marguerite Gauthier first sparkled into being in the pages of the Alexandre Dumas fils novel La Dame aux camellias. English speakers know the story better as Camille. Verdi turned it into the opera La Traviata. Luhrmann spun it into gold with the movie Moulin Rouge. And Charles Ludlam penned this – the drag Camille – in the mid-70s, to cult acclaim.
Perpetually visioned and revisioned, Gauthier is a cornerstone of our mythology: the quintessential free-willed bad girl with a bruised heart and a fortified spirit. Company member Jay Hardee holds his own in the title role, playing Gautier with ice-dry wit and a strolling, smirking ease of purpose. He’s backed up by a formidable ensemble that loops in and out of drag throughout the night, consoling, cracking jokes, and having a grand old time evoking long nights in bohemian Paris.
Our courtesan’s story is ultimately a tragedy: having grown attached to the powerful Baron de Varville (John Kevin Boggs), Gautier is skeptical at first of her bold new suitor Armand Duval (James Finley), a grandiose puppy dog of a young man who appears at a party. But, feeling a tinge of something more, Gautier flees Paris with Duval and heads to the country, where – surprise! – she manages to fall in love with him. Financial complications ensue, and soon Duval and the Baron find themselves fighting over exclusive rights to their bewildered mutual lover.
At the outset, though, life is a party. The Clark Street Playhouse hasn’t given up its warehouse aesthetic, and the ex-industrial space suits a show that relies so heavily on pastiche and irreverent pop-culture mash-ups. The soirees are enhanced with disco balls and Judy Garland homages. Internal monologue comes pouring out as fervently lip-synched clips of Elton John and Madonna. Dialogue is sprinkled with coquettish asides and strings of witty one-liners.
For the most part, it works. A well-choreographed opening musical number pulls everyone on stage. Ample space in front of the stage allows actors to schmooze with us and with each other before climbing up into the picture frame. The lighting design is lovely and richly colored; when the lights pop into glam mode for the parties, the steeply-raked seating in the theater creates a feeling of immersive warmth, like taking a bath in all the good vibes.
The team also packs a lot of tricks into a minimalist set. A hanging window and thick braided curtains detail Gautier’s apartment nicely. Behind is a screen, for fun with shadow play, and printed there is a huge, weightless charcoal drawing of the Eiffel Tower and the surrounding neighborhood. The shifts between city life and country life are nicely orchestrated and admirably economical.
The design has a few weak spots. For every costume that impresses (Frank Britton, as Prudence Duvernoy, wears a dress made of drapery, complete with rings along the bottom hem, and a little hat straight out of drag queen Ongina’s closet) another shows its signs of construction a little too plainly, which gives off an air of the thrift store too heavy for a show so enamored with luxury and class. Fetish is hinted at, but barely, and leaves one wishing for either a lot more leather or none at all. It’s also a bit of a shame that the theater’s subpar sound system can’t be turned up to 11, since a little more kick would help those wonderful parties achieve liftoff.
Even so, Camille is admirably measured in its vamping, the ensemble stays true to the source material, and everyone’s having such a damn good time that the show comes off as surprisingly moving and emotionally genuine, and packed with shining moments. Britton lip-synchs “Stormy Weather” to applause. Jay Saunders is effortlessly charming as the nubile Nichette. As Duval, Finley hits the right balance between fawning romantic and jilted gentlemen. Boggs’s Baron, in a tuxedo t-shirt, is truly creepy. And moments of irreverent theater magic hold it all together, as when a partygoer thumps an upright piano with his fist to turn the house music on and off.
Needless to say, neither Duval nor the Baron truly win the battle. For it’s barely a few minutes into the show before we hear The Cough. Yes, folks, the fire of love isn’t the only thing consuming Marguerite Gautier. Once speckles of blood appear in the handkerchief, it’s only a matter of time before the heroine’s romantic expiration. “I always look well when I’m near death,” she breathes, and no one can disagree.
This lovingly tense relationship with death, disease and mortality is a common element of opera and melodrama, and taps a queasy sort of poignancy in gay culture as well, in which so many have found empowerment through a sense of self-sacrifice. Scenes like the final act of Camille are truly in a genre of their own – a legacy we might call tragi-glamour.
Despite Gautier’s practiced defenses of self-deprecation and irony, something in Duval touches her. “I’d rather die for your love than pay 50 francs for it,” he whispers. In WSC’s show, even lines like this – especially lines like this – manage to hit a note of noble sincerity. No small feat, for sure. The players in Camille may coast on a wave of wealth, but when the money’s all gone, the heart beats on.
Camille: A Tearjerker
by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Christopher Henley
Produced by the Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.