Lillian Groag’s “The Ladies of the Camellias” features four bizarre African pets, two women who give new meaning to the term prima donna, and one anarchist turned hostage taker with a secret identity. This bawdy, allusion-strewn countdown culminates in a short-lived moment of genuine affection.
Sarah Bernhardt (Judith-Marie Bergan) and Eleanora Duse (Felicity Jones) are the most famous leading women in 19th-century Paris, and the whole of highbrow society — including their playwright, Alexandre Dumas (Dean Nolen DRA ’00) — is wondering how they will manage to share the titular role of Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias.”
But after some determined sniping — untimely demises are happily prevented by the theater’s all-purpose butler Benoit, played by Tom Beckett ’85 DRA ’91, who does “scandalized” particularly well — the duo wind up on the same side of the footlights, so to speak, when Ivan the anarchist (Triney Sandoval) takes Bernhardt, Duse, Dumas, Benoit and a ragtag bunch of other theatrical folk hostage.
And, though they’re all very “let them eat cake” about the whole affair and Ivan isn’t a particularly effective revolutionary, he does have ideology and a gun, which means that the actors’ efforts at seduction, escape and proving their worth as artistes are wasted on him. What results is a bizarre back-and-forth about the nature of theater, sprinkled with overacted monologues and kvetching from the two leading ladies, whose larger-than-life portrayals are what ultimately keeps us entertained.
They’re Roxy and Velma, Margo and Eve, and any pair of divas separated more by style than substance. The Madame, as Bernhardt is known, “wears her frivolity like a banner,” according to her arch nemesis, and has a penchant for live animals and grande jetes at inappropriate moments, while the Signora (Duse) views every available prop as a potential deathbed.
However, they have more in common than they’d like to think. Both have leading men whom they keep cowed, neither one is a fan of reading Dumas’ lines as written, and both resent the insinuation that their art should remotely resemble real-life. In this instance, over-the-top is a compliment, and Bergan and Jones’ claws-bared bickering is the scaffolding of the entire show.
The resulting construction is a pastiche of theatrical allusions and low-brow humor centered on misunderstandings due to the characters’ over-the-top Russian/Italian/generally pretentious accents. The show is dense with one-liners and physical comedy, some of which is unnecessary: the catfighting and backstage intrigue is hilarious enough without putting the leading men in suggestive situations or employing collapseable chairs.
But given the nature of the play, there’s only so much to say and, particularly with straight man Dumas off the stage, the second act drags. By its midpoint, even the anarchist himself (whose fickle accent goes from off-putting to endearing) seems weary of the ensemble’s circular arguments about art and politics and reality; the arrival of a Rostand character to duel with Monsieur Anarchist seems more random than anything else
All in all, Groag’s “souffle with a razor blade inside” (her words) is both suitably saccharine and suitably sarcastic, a whirlwind tour of a world where love exists as practice for playing Juliet, where a more insufferable recipient means a more effusive kiss, and where “calamity, catastrophe and the end of the world” are business as usual.