Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Camille, receiving its U.S. premiere production at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD, succeeds in stripping the varnish from the familiar story and forces audiences to give it a fresh look.
Bartlett explains in his program notes that people think they know the tale of Marguerite (Angela Reed), the beautiful courtesan known as “the lady of the camellias,” and Armand (Aubrey Deeker), the callow, wealthy young man who wants to capture the heart of a woman who freely gives her body for cash. However, the true story behind the legend is less well known today: when author Alexandre Dumas fils wrote La Dame aux Camélias in the late 1840s, first as a novel and then as a play, he was recounting his own affair with a courtesan named Marie Duplessis, who died in much the same way as the fictional Marguerite. The scandalous story was familiar to the fashionable residents of Paris.
Bartlett explains that his reworking of the story of Camille follows the model of Dumas’ novel more than his play. He begins the action after the death of Marguerite, as admirers, hangers-on, and the curious gather for the auction of her estate. Armand recounts his first memory of Marguerite, and the rest of the story proceeds as a flashback.
The audience gets its first sense that this Camille will display a unique perspective by looking at James Kronzer’s scenic design, depicting Marguerite’s apartment and other settings. The actual perspective of the scenery is itself skewed, filling the broad Round House stage and vanishing, seemingly, into infinity. The set dressing is simple: a few pieces of furniture, a 19th-century piano, and a cascade of empty picture frames on the walls.
Director Blake Robison, making his debut as Round House’s producing artistic director, has a strong ensemble to work with, and he works to delineate the characters in a straightforward yet nuanced way. For an example of the depth of talent here, Round House regulars Kathryn Kelley and Mitchell Hébert shine in the relatively small roles of, respectively, Marguerite’s maid and a doctor with an eye for beauty.
Reed, a commanding redhead who confidently inhabits her sweeping gowns by Rosemary Pardee, is a hard-headed businesswoman who has worked hard to reach the top of her profession. At first she patronizes Armand when he begs for her love, explaining that he can have it if he can afford it, but gradually she realizes the pleasure, and the emotional risk, of giving her heart. (She knows the difference between work and play; this Marguerite is perfectly willing to keep working to support herself and Armand, something earlier versions have not depicted.)
The danger here is that an Armand might not be able to hold his ground theatrically opposite such a strong Marguerite. Deeker meets the challenge, conveying the deepest emotions – despair when his love goes unrequited, ecstasy when at last it is – without any sense of artifice. The truth shines through in his eyes.
The cast also includes Sarah Marshall is Marguerite’s ebullient friend Prudence; Vanessa Vaughn as a challenger to Marguerite’s role in society; Matthew Detmer as Gaston’s friend and drinking companion; and Jim Scopeletis as an odious would-be lover of Marguerite. Only Armand’s father (Dan Manning) comes across as opaque, less a real person worried about his family than a two-dimensional indictment of narrow-mindedness.
Round House Theatre