Photo by C. STANLEY PHOTOGRAPHY
The world in which a young theater company lives is exciting, dark and risky. Unlike some of the more established theatre companies in D.C., groups like the Washington Shakespeare Company are willing to choose different playwrights and take bolder liberties. Hell, they’ll even do a whole show in drag.
Enter WSC’s first show of the season, Charles Ludlam’s drag classic, “Camille: A Tearjerker.”
After founding the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967, Ludlam gained popularity in 1970 as a director, actor and playwright (he often starred in his own plays). “Camille” was first staged in 1973—a satire based on the famous Romantic French tragedy “La Dame aux Camelias,” by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Ludlam transformed the story—originally about a prostitute named Marguerite Gautier who falls in love with Armand Duval, a man far above her social class—into a contemporary commentary on gay culture and its niche in society.
Marguerite Gautier, Ludlam’s role in the original production—this time played by WSC company member Jay Hardee—is a drag queen, living every day for the next soiree, and, as we are soon to discover, slowly dying of AIDS. Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987, thereby coloring his arguably most personal drag persona in a whole new light.
WSC’s “Camille” is certainly aware of the presence of Ludlam in their modern performance, and the audience is similarly made aware, making “Camille” a fabulous send-up to one ridiculous, theatrical artist.
Every facet of the production goes big or doesn’t go at all, be it disco dance breaks, Judy Garland lip-syncs, sky-blue eyeshadow and glittery eyeliner or the giant black dildo that materializes from bad-guy Baron de Varville’s (played slimily by John Kevin Boggs) S&M bag. The theme of the night was melodrama, something for which Ludlam is certainly known, but he was also lauded for the inclusion of something deeper and more significant in his texts.
“The moment I’m no longer amusing to people, they leave me,” says Marguerite in the first act, right before the plot takes a turn from all fun and sex jokes to dark, character-driven comedy. But one doesn’t see Marguerite as she delivers her line; they see Ludlam, struggling with the purpose of his work, and subsequently, with the purpose of his life. While the WSC embraced the melodrama of “Camille” fully, both the designers and the actors shied away from exploring Ludlam’s significant inner struggle.
The thick makeup, bright costumes, emphasized proscenium and embellished acting all contributed to the distancing of the actors, and by association, of the audience from the events taking place. While a satire can be simply farcical, a satire of “La Dame aux Camelias” (one of the most tragic and beautiful plays in literature) cannot. There must be an emotional grounding in Marguerite, or, in this case, in Ludlam.
In many ways, Ludlam’s real-life character is so bright and alive in his work that it can’t be contained—especially in “Camille,” a play that, again and again, mirrors Ludlam’s own life. WSC did right to embrace his character and serve up this play as an ode to his life and work, but they chose not to invest in his struggle, instead relying heavily on Ludlam’s slapstick. A whole cast dressed in drag may be the most risqué thing on a D.C. stage right now, but the real risk for the WSC would have been to invest in the Ludlam beneath the Ludlam.
“Camille: A Tearjerker” will be playing at the Clark Street Playhouse, Washington Shakespeare Company’s home for one more season, through Sept. 27. The WSC offers a Student Theatre pass—five tickets for $50—so bring friends to “Camille” and experience the Ridiculous together.