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The Ladies of the Camellias

There is nothing more delicious to educated theatre audiences than a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the art form itself. The backstage genre works as a drama (The Dresser), a farce (Noises Off), and even as a musical comedy (Kiss Me, Kate).

Photo of Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt and Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse
(L to R) Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt
and Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Along these lines, Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson kicks off his Women's Voices program and a run of four consecutive plays written by women with Lillian Groag's affectionate, thoughtful, and at times zany The Ladies of the Camellias—an insider's fantasy that places the two great competing actresses of the fin-de-siècle, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, in the same Parisien theatre performing back-to-back productions of Alexandre Dumas, fils' The Lady of the Camellias in June, 1897.

Photo of Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt
Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Groag wrote the piece on a dare from one of her acting teachers with whom she disagreed over the comparative merits of the two famous stage divas, and much of the early business involves drawing distinct portraits of the grand dames, first through the eyes of their paramours, then through their separate appearances, and finally in contrast to each other.

Photo of Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse
Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Everything about Beverly Leech's Bernhardt is grand—her entrance, her gestures, and her penchant for what we today would call melodramatic, while Monique Fowler draws us into Duse's internal musings and naturalistic style. Groag rightfully is even-handed in her approach, with both characters having their moments center stage to display their style and wit, not only as performing actors but as people within a "real-life" drama.

After establishing an inquiry into the nature of theatre and acting, as well as serving up a steady diet of inside jokes and physical comedy, Groag moves the story into high gear with a plot device that allows these theatrical indulgences to flow apace naturally from the action, often to great effect.

Photo of Randy Moore as Benoit and Philip Pleasants as Alexandre Dumas
(L to R) Randy Moore as Benoit and
Philip Pleasants as Alexandre Dumas
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Randy Moore, as Benoit (a once-famous actor and now Bernhardt's prompter) and Philip Pleasants as Alexandre Dumas, fils (the playwright of the play-within-the-play) capture the atmospherics of European theatre at that time, dropping names (Shaw and Wilde, Rimbaud and Verlaine), sharing war stories, and providing color on the struggles between actors, writers, directors, and designers.

Photo of Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse, John Hutton as Flavio Andō and Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt
(L to R) Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse,
John Hutton as Flavio Andō and
Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt
Photo: Terry Shapiro
John Hutton (as Flavio Andò) and Bill Christ (as Gustave-Hippolite Worms) are built-in comic relief as Duse's and Bernhardt's leading men of the hour, exploring the pitfalls of playing second fiddle to a couple of pioneers for women's rights, while further expanding the playing field for inside jokes and physical comedy.

Photo of Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse, Bill Christ as Gustave-Hippolite Worms and Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt
(L to R) Monique Fowler as Eleonora Duse,
Bill Christ as Gustave-Hippolite Worms
and Beverly Leech as Sarah Bernhardt
Photo: Terry Shapiro
As Bernhardt and Duse are at the top of their game and Benoit past his prime, the next generation is chomping at the bit in the wings. From the start, the ingénue (A Girl) plays a key role in Groag's drama, first threatening the play-within-a-play by quitting because she has fallen in love, then helping save everyone's skin by attracting the interest of the mad Russian revolutionary and director who has hijacked Sarah and Eleonora. Later, we discover that the young actress is Réjane, who succeeded Bernardt on the French stage. Clearly not intimidated by her elders, Stephanie Cozart's Réjane not only shows us the mettle that will later make her famous, but completes Groag's depiction of the arc of the acting life, establishing the beginnings of a career.

Photo of James Knight as Ivan and Stephanie Cozart as A Girl
James Knight as Ivan and
Stephanie Cozart as A Girl
Photo: Terry Shapiro
James Knight provides the burning fuse amidst all this volatility with a whirlwind performance as Ivan, who raises the physical and philosophic stakes of the evening by forcefully sequestering the company and questioning the very premise of the theatre arts. Here, Bernhardt's and Duse's gifts are put to the true test, and Groag finds both of them up to the task.

There are, however, a number of factors in the production that dampen the effectiveness of Groag's surprising sophistication, considering this play was her first effort: principally the combination of the in-the-round requirements of the Space Theatre and the introduction of a surfeit of dialects and accents that often drift past the representational limits of stage imitation and into the realm of genuinely unintelligible or inaudible, as evidenced in the patterns of laughter that follow the blocking around the theatre. Anyone without better than average hearing would be advised to take advantage of the amplified headsets offered by the theatre.

Nevertheless, Groag out-guesses us a second time, resolving her plot in a manner unrivaled since Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, with the introduction of a character that is larger than life in more ways than one. Mark Rubald handles this juicy role with relish, not only inhabiting Coquelin with gusto, but lighting up the role (here unrevealed) that made the actor famous. Groag then returns to her original challenge and does both big-hearted ladies proud.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Lillian Groag's The Ladies of the Camillias runs through April 22nd. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

 

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