Friday, March 23, 2007

Laughs abound with ‘The Ladies’

Published in The News Tribune, March 23, 2007

Theater at its best can be a transcendental exper­ience that lifts you out of your everyday existence and into a magical place where you see more clearly, think more vividly and feel more fully. That is the underlying theme of Harlequin Productions’ latest show, “The Ladies of the Camellias.”

I can’t imagine how anyone can see this wonderful play and not experience at least a moment of that transcendental magic. Plus, it will make you laugh uproariously.

“Ladies” is a period comedy written by Lillian Groag based on actual events that took place in Sarah Bernhardt’s Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris in 1897. At the time, both Bernhardt and her archrival, the Italian actress Eleonora Duse, were superstars. Each was famous for her portrayal of Marguerite in Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camellias.” As unbelievable as it may seem, the two divas had the same agent, and Bernhardt agreed to let Duse perform in Dumas’ play in her theater. The two were going to play the same role in the same theater on two consecutive days. They were in the theater together, along with Dumas, who was frustrated by both divas because they refused to play their parts as he wrote them. (Duse argues, “You only wrote her. I invented her.”)

Until this point Groag’s play is historically accurate, but here Groag’s imagination kicks in to invent what she calls a divertissement – a wild flight into absurd comedy mixed with heady philosophical arguments on the relationship between art and politics. This divertissement arrives at the theater in the person of Ivan, a Russian anarchist with a gun and a bomb who threatens to blow up the theater unless two of his fellow rebels are released from the Paris jail.

This poor, discombobulated anarchist doesn’t understand or appreciate these theater people who seem to live in a make-believe world where guns and bombs are mere theatrical props, and where the desperate anarchist’s threats amount to little more than bad acting. But there’s much more to it than that: Ivan the anarchist, it turns out, is not who he seems to be. But that is a plot twist I shall not give away.

Director and set designer Linda Whitney, her technical crew and her entire cast do a wonderful job with this complicated and demanding show. The interior of the State Theater is transformed into a believably ornate turn-of-the-century theater. Bernhardt’s and Duse’s costumes are gorgeous. The lighting (Nat Rayman) and sound (Gina Salerno) are impeccable. And seldom if ever in the South Sound area have I seen so many top-notch professional actors on a single stage.

Becky Wood, in her Harlequin debut, plays Sarah Bernhardt as regal and imperious – but believably gracious despite her self-absorption. And Mari Nelson – who has performed on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Guys and Dolls” and in the New York Shakespeare Festival in “Twelfth Night” and is well known to Harlequin audiences for her roles in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” “The Constant Wife,” the “Stardust” series and other productions – is a commanding presence on stage as the beautiful but aloof Eleonora Duse. Both actresses make their characters lovable despite their haughty eccentricities. Through them, we see why Bernhardt and Duse were so loved throughout the world.

Harlequin veterans Russ Holm and Brian Claudio Smith are hilariously physical as the competing male actors Gustave-Hippolyte Worms (Holm) and Flavio Ando (Smith). These two would definitely steal the show if the other actors on stage were not so good. Smith, in particular, does pratfalls that I would not have believed humanly possible if I hadn’t seen them.

Jason Haws is perfectly cast as Ivan the anarchist, and Amy Hill is sweet and sassy as the young actress Gabrielle Réjane.

Mark Bujeaud’s athleticism is quite impressive as he swings in on a rope as Benoit Constant Coquelin playing the part of Cyrano de Bergerac; Steve Manning plays a blustery and indignant Alexander Dumas, fils; and Phillip Mitchell holds everything in check as Benoit, the only calm presence in the play.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 31
WHERE: State Theatre, 202 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: $12-$33; rush tickets available half-hour before curtain
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151

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