Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

By: Joel Benjamin
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Steven Hayes and Marc McBarron Kessler
in a scene from Camille by Charles Ludlam
(Photo credit: Tom Zuback)

An extravagant production of Charles Ludlam’s Camille at the intimate Obra Negra Lounge of Casa Mezcal in the now-chic and hip Lower East Side makes a case for a revival of this camp classic, if not for this script’s place as a viable, enduring theatrical work. Very much a product of the seventies, a period of uproar and experimentation, Camille was actually cutting edge in 1973, its withering take on a beloved romantic classic typical of that period of cultural re-examination. Time hasn’t been kind to this play with its asides, double entendres and anachronisms, but John V.N. Philip, the director, has guided a game cast in giving boisterous life to this minor classic.

Ludlam’s Camille pretty much follows the traditional plotline of all other Camilles: The courtesan Marguerite Gautier (Steven Hayes) lives beyond her means, kept by the Baron de Varville until she meets the ardent, younger Armand Duval (Marc McBarron Kessler) with whom she leaves decadent Paris behind to pursue a passionate romance. Armand’s father, Duval, Sr. (Bruce-Michael Gelbert), importunes Marguerite to leave Armand—actually quoting Verdi’s “Di Provenza” from La Traviata!—to to save his family’s name which she reluctantly does, assuming it is best for her beloved. Believing Marguerite has returned to her old life for pecuniary reasons, Armand insults poor Marguerite who soon dies of consumption, to Armand’s deep guilt and regret.

Ludlam lampoons the lush romance, subversively peopling it with campy characters like the very anachronistic maid Nanine (Mariah Bonner) whose sarcastic attitude is more twentieth than eighteenth century; Mxaxa (Andrew Resto) a nervous Moroccan-style man servant, complete with fez; the Baron de Varville (John Holly), a rich old coot who controls Marguerite with his wealth, but certainly not his looks; her bitchy friends, Nichette (Barbara Mundy), a nineteenth-century cougar; the conspicuously consuming Olympe (Phil Stoehr, in resplendent drag); and the couturier Prudence (Francesca MacAaron) who provides Marguerite with her over-the-top fashions. The male contingent also includes Saint Gaudens (Eric Rice), Nichette’s supportive lover, and Gaston Roue (Brad Baker), a supportive friend whose piano playing is limited to “Frère Jacques.”

This Camille, which I saw on a slightly shaky preview, has the benefit of sumptuous costumes and a witty set, all designed by Andrew Loren Resto. The intimacy of the Obra Negra Lounge may not make much financial sense with its forty or so seats, but, as the actors pass through the audience en route to the little stage doing their shtick, pulling all the stops out, this is a terrifically visceral experience. It’s fun to laugh out loud as these actors sashay right in front of you, hysterically emoting Ludlam’s lines.

Hayes, a skilled comic actor, is quite a bit larger than Ludlam and much more needs to be made of the laughable incongruity of his/her falling for the spindly Mr. Kessler. All the other cast members are committed to the spirit of silliness that is Ludlam and it is to Mr. Philip’s credit that they all seem to be on the same wave length: wanting nothing more than to entertain the audience with Ludlam’s winkingly clever dialogue.

Camille (through February 25th, 2013)
Obra Negra Lounge at Casa Mezcal
86 Orchard Street, between Broome and Grand Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101/866-811-4111 or visit http://www.Ovationtix.com

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