Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Trinity finds a most congenial spot for Camelot

Yes, Lancelot, this is Camelot!
You have to feel for artistic directors these days - they can't approach a great old chestnut without some sort of radical excuse for doing so.  Don't worry, they tell us, we're not going to just "do" Our Town or You Can't Take It With You - we're going to "do" something with it!  The genders are reversed this time; or it's set on Wall Street; or everybody pees on the flag at the end; or a giant pineapple rolls through!  We're going to rip away the mask of gentility, and leave you shivering in the existential dark, staring your own failed, miserable existence in the face!   And you're going to love it!

Only of course nine times out of ten, you don't love it; the radical update, or reconstruction or what have you, falls terribly flat. You try to stare the meaninglessness of your own existence in the face, but you find yourself thinking about the grocery list instead.  That is when you're not happily daydreaming - as Emily urinates on George in the middle of Our Town - of innocent productions of chestnuts past, which gave you such pleasure, before Bob Brustein explained to you how wrong you were.

But some artistic directors are beginning to realize that you can have your radical frosting and still eat your theatrical cake, too.  Take Trinity Rep's new staging of Camelot, for instance, by artistic director Curt Columbus.  On the surface, it seems like a groovy radical update of this tired old thing that noobody could take seriously anymore - it's set not in some Ed-Sullivan-Show version of Sherwood Forest, but in London, in the Tube, during the blitz.  Gritty enough for you?  None of the ladies are wearing those pointy hats with tissues at the end, either - no, instead they're putting the best face they can on being forced out of house and home by the Nazis (just like in Cabaret!), who seem to be getting closer and closer, as the roof shakes, and plaster falls from a relentless bombardment.  In a word, this is not your father's Camelot!

But guess what - it is.  Within that newfangled frame, the "show within a show" unspools pretty much like that old-fashioned Ed Sullivan version, with witty romantic leads, and an idealized love triangle in which everybody's suffering and it's nobody's fault, and even an unapologetically lush rendering of that gorgeous chunk of melodic rock sugar, "If Ever I Would Leave You."  The whole radical update thing is really just a conceptual Trojan horse; the Camelot you love is hidden inside, and you'll pretty much love it all over again, much as you did before you went to college.  (Just don't tell Bob Brustein.)

And to be honest, the frame story is appropriate in its way - T.H. White began The Once and Future King, the source material of Camelot, as the bombs began to fall on London. Still, the concept trips up director Columbus a bit at the end (when he equates the battle over Guenevere's infidelity with the Battle of Britain); till then, however, it only intrudes superficially, and often to positive effect.  The whole "show" is here presented as an attempt to cheer the public up (rather like in real life, but never mind!) - so when the performers are interrupted in "The Lusty Month of May" by falling bombs, they defiantly do a second chorus, stiff upper lips firmly in place.  The updating even leads to some felicitous jokes in the staging, as when the Knights of the Round Table gather to listen to the day's jousting on an old-fashioned radio.

And the Trinity cast has the chops to (mostly) carry on in the long shadows of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet (a cast which my partner actually saw on his eighth grade field trip to New York, so many moons ago; he was still enchanted by the Trinity version).  Stephen Thorne makes an endearingly callow Arthur (which is, actually, exactly as it should be; Burton's weary brooding, sexy as it was, was an imposition on the role), and though Rebecca Gibel (right, with Thorne) comes off as too experienced and common-sensible for Guenevere, her voice is beautifully matched to her songs, and she's a wonderful comic actress, too, so that's fine as well.

Alas, there's a subtler problem at work in Joe Wilson, Jr.'s performance as Lancelot.  Wilson has an eccentric charisma that could probably carry him through playing Mary Poppins, and he's hilarious whenever the part leans toward Lancelot's innocent conceit.  He even has the pipes to do justice to the lustrous "If Ever I Would Leave You."  But somehow he has no real chemistry with Gibel - or she has no chemistry with him - even though they both work awfully hard at pretending it's there; thus we accept, but don't really feel, the supposed pathos of their situation.

There are other missteps  - Jamey Grisham makes Mordred a kind of Kurt Hummel in bitch mode, and Mauro Hantmann mostly phones in his performance as Merlin.  But Janice Duclos may have never been better as a gimlet-eyed but gluttonous Morgan Le Fey, and Barbara Meek (who begins her fortieth season with Trinity this year) makes a crustily perfect Sir Pellinore.  The ensemble is slyly skillful, and director Columbus keeps bringing fresh twists to the unfolding action.  Until that slightly discomfiting finish (which is hardly the original's finest hour, either), I was consistently charmed.

But then why shouldn't I be?  Is it really so square to like Camelot, even in the Kennedy-White-House version (below) with the ladies in the pointy hats?  I mean, sure, Robert Goulet is obviously fatuous in his doe-eyes-and-chest-hair sensitivity.  But just ponder for a moment what the hip young Spamalot fans of today will be listening to in, say, forty years - an 80-year-old Amanda Palmer still singing about abortion.  Feel a little better about Robert Goulet?  I thought so.  ;-)

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