The untimely death of Marie Duplessis, the Parisian courtesan and mistress of Alexandre Dumas, the younger (and many others including Franz Liszt), inspired Dumas to create the character of Marguerite Gautier, the tragic figure in "La Dame aux Camélias," Grief-struck, Dumas honored his beautiful, tragic real-life mistress with a similar tale of a beautiful woman with a zest for life, who dies from consumption before her time.
It was this character that inspired Giuseppe Verdi to composed one of his greatest works, "La Traviata," in which the name of the heroine was changed to Violetta Valery. In the English speaking world, we have come to know the character, not as "The Lady of the Camellias," but more simply as "Camille."
Beginning in the mid 19th Century and for nearly a hundred years thereafter, the character of Marguerite Gautier became one of the great roles to be played on stage by the leading actresses of the day. It was also captured on film on several occasions, including the memorable 1936 classic "Camille" starring Greta Garbo.
This fascination on stage led to many productions of "The Lady of the Camellias" being presented across Europe, among the best known were actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. An imagined meeting between these two is the basis behind the comedy "The Ladies of the Camellias," written by Lillian Groag.
Director and producer Gary Rucker cast himself into this play in the role of Berhardt's leading man, Gustave-Hippolyte Worms, a role he played nearly a decade ago while pursuing his master's degree in fine arts at the University of New Orleans. This time, though, it might have been better for him to have resisted the temptation of playing a role and to have stayed in the director's chair. Not that he doesn't play his role to near perfection. He does. But the timing between these larger-than-life characters is slightly off, resulting in several misfires, and the production smarts from lacking a firmer director's hand.
Those who know theatre will derive some humor for many of the inside jokes that are written into the play such as the somewhat foreign concept of having a director steer a production and the superstition of never uttering the name of "the Scottish play" while onstage.
Both Kathryn Merris Scott as Bernhardt and Trina Beck as Duse do creditable jobs in their roles as the leading divas of the day. As Bernhardt, who had a reputation as an inveterate liar, Scott is demanding and deprecating. As Duse, Beck brings out the the darkness and despair of this celebrated actress.
The other characters are busy in Act One keeping the two actresses apart until a crazed Russian activist named Ivan, played by Ross Britz, rushes the stage and insists on taking everyone hostage at the point of a gun and while holding a mysterious package.
Britz’s Russian accent dropped every now and then, but the more alarming part of his portrayal was that his usually impeccable comedic timing seemed forced in this role.
Kate Kuen was a dream. She played a young actress in Bernhardt’s company, who was seeking to find both an acting career and a man, although not necessarily exclusive of one another.
In comparison to Rucker’s performance, Shawn Benoit, who played Duse’s leading man, Flavio Ando, was somewhat stiff, but held the promise he would grow into the role. Benjamin Clement’s performance as the younger Alexandre Dumas was quite good and was the solid foundation on which this comic farce is placed. His even delivery and poise moved the action along nicely,
For comic relief Matt Reed as Benoit-Constant Coquelin, a noted French actor of the day in the role of Cyrano de Bergerac (yes, nose and all) and Michael Martin as Moussieur Benoit, the theater prompter, brought smiles to the audience looking for outright laughs.
"The Ladies of the Camellias" could have been a bigger, better comedy, but its closing means that the theater's upcoming production of Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" can't be far off. The Rivertown Theaters artistic artists - Theatre13 - has proven time and again their strong suit is musicals and audiences should look forward to seeing Rucker play the monster with Mason Wood set to star as Igor.