The Thousandth Night
Ron Campbell is talented. There should be no mistake about this. In The Thousandth Night he plays 38 characters, and the audience never has the slightest twinge of doubt as to which one he is playing at any given moment. As Campbell re-enacts, in solo form, several of the "Arabian Nights" tales, he clearly defines each comic character through voice, movement and mannerisms. And his work is definitely comic. In an early story, he portrays a woman by shoving a bundled piece of clothing under his shirt to create her ample bosom. When he transforms into the woman's husband, he simply drops the clothing a bit lower, where it serves as the man's pot-belly. Campbell also throws in goofy sound effects, and even creates silly voices for a few animals in the stories.
There is a second layer to Campbell's performance. We are not simply watching Ron Campbell perform the stories from "Arabian Nights." We are instead watching Campbell play Guy de Bonheur, who is himself performing scenes from "Arabian Nights." Guy is an extrovert with a fairly broad comic sense. He can't help but do a wildly inappropriate, corny little dance step when he meets some strangers who may hold his life in their hands. And yet, the inappropriateness of the dance step itself makes Guy come off as self-effacing - which turns out to be a fairly good window into Guy's character. This is a fellow who relies on self-mockery and playing the innocent fool to get through life's difficulties.
What's more, there is a third layer to Campbell's performance - which brings us to the framework of The Thousandth Night. The play takes place in Occupied France. When the action begins, a train has just been derailed by an explosion. Guy, a Parisian actor, was on that train; it was headed to Buchenwald. While Nazi forces investigate the sabotage and round up the passengers, Guy slips away into a nearby train station. He seeks the assistance of the officials there - to hide him or to intervene on his behalf with the Nazis. Guy seeks to prove that there is nothing subversive about the plays he and his troupe used to perform by performing the plays himself. In the absence of the rest of his troupe, he plays all of the parts. But, in some instances, he plays the parts the way his fellow actors had played them. Thus, his portrayal of a young lover isn't simply Guy playing the young lover, but Guy playing the young lover in the way that the company's leading man had played him, complete with overdramatic pauses that are downright Shatnerian. It is, in short, Campbell playing Guy playing a ham playing a lover, and Campbell pulls it all off cleanly and transparently.
But The Thousandth Night doesn't earn the whoops and hollers one might expect from such a tour-de-force performance. Indeed, at the performance reviewed, it did not earn the standing ovation one might have thought was mandatory when anyone carries an entire show for an hour and a half. The problem seems to lie in Carol Wolf's script - and, to a lesser extent, the related difficulties inherent in pulling off a Holocaust comedy.
The main problem with the script is that, from fairly early on, Guy is not established as a particularly likeable protagonist. As Guy stops between tales to tell his audience what became of different members of his troupe, we learn that he had the opportunity to step up and save them from "deportation" or other atrocities, yet he did nothing. Additionally, although Guy keeps repeating that there is nothing seditious about his innocent little plays, he can't seem to stop himself from repeatedly throwing in the occasional aside against the Nazi forces. We should spend the play on the edge of our seats, hoping that Guy will be saved, but part of us pointedly notes that Guy never saved the people he could have helped - and he isn't trying particularly hard to prove his case anyway.
As it happens, Wolf's script is surprisingly deeper than it appears for the bulk of the play - ultimately reaching a territory that is not only satisfactory but thought-provoking. But, by the time it gets there, the harm is already done - we just don't care all that much about what happens to Guy. More than that, though, the ultimate brushes with moral issues seem jarring in a play where your leading character plays a talking donkey, and characters resolve a domestic dispute by comically attacking each other's privates. One can't help but think what an amazing piece The Thousandth Night would have been if Wolf and Campbell had backed off from the low-brow comedy and delivered the plays-within-the-play simply as engrossing little theatrical gems.
The Thousandth Night continues at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through July 15, 2007. For tickets and information see: www.colonytheatre.org.
The Colony Theatre Company - Barbara Beckley, Artistic Director - presents The Thousandth Night by Carol Wolf. Performed by Ron Campbell. Set Design by Susan Gratch; Lighting Design by Jeremy Pivnick; Sound Design by John Zalewski; Properties Design by MacAndME; Marketing/Public Relations David Elzer/Demand PR; Production Stage Manager Leesa Freed. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky.