Theater Review: 'Camille: A Tearjerker' at Washington Shakespeare Company

Jay Hardee, far left, shines as the daunting titular character, along with an evenly balanced cast, in "Camille: A Tearjerker."
Jay Hardee, far left, shines as the daunting titular character, along with an evenly balanced cast, in "Camille: A Tearjerker." (C. Stanley Photography)
By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

The prospect of a mocking "Camille" might lead you to expect shades of Greta Garbo, but it's Judy Garland's spirit that dominates the raunchy, bittersweet show now vamping at the Clark Street Playhouse.

This "Camille: A Tearjerker" is Charles Ludlam's 1973 drag travesty of the Dumas fils classic, and director Christopher Henley adds an updated dance club vibe and major lip-syncing interludes in the Washington Shakespeare Company's lovingly irreverent production. When the characters hit peaks of emotional distress, they mouth the words as great recordings of torch standards ("Stormy Weather," "What Now My Love") fill the room.

As Ludlam might have said, why not? Ludlam was the actor-writer force behind the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which flaunted a no-holds-barred aesthetic. Nineteenth century French lit acted in drag, with flippant pop references mixed in? You bet. Taking the heart of the story seriously? That too, for in the Ridiculous, empathy rubs shoulders with comedy that's fabulously glib and often really low.

Henley's nearly all-male cast camps it up big time in an opening that pulses to a dance club beat and declares its "mature audiences" sensibilities right away. (A bare-bummed Cupid figure is among the scandalously half-clad revelers writhing to the deep musical groove.) That tone-setting puckishness lingers as the music subsides and Ludlam's tart zingers take over.

The story takes aggressive liberties with the characters while remaining fairly loyal to the Dumas plot about an alluring Parisian courtesan who eventually succumbs to consumption and true love (her famous cough gets a particularly nifty comic treatment). The old tale is rendered with layers of modern sass, of course, especially from the daunting title character, played with impressive physicality and grace by Jay Hardee. His Camille is a strapping figure, an eye-catching dervish on the dance floor, yet Hardee -- like most of the evenly balanced cast -- knows how to tip his verbal barbs in acid.

Hardee's performance really soars, though, in the lip-syncing bits, as he pours poor Camille's heart and soul into bravura ballads; his flair at this usually dubious endeavor is matched only by Frank Britton, who opens the second act as the run-down dressmaker Prudence Duvernoy, compellingly lip-syncing "Stormy Weather." Henley chooses his faux-vocal moments pretty carefully (Kari Ginsburg is credited with the musical staging), and these brief but intense passages help guide the show toward a more contemplative mood.

The Ridiculous thrives on a thrifty make-do attitude -- Ludlam's two-man "The Mystery of Irma Vep" inevitably seemed overdone at Arena Stage last year -- and the WSC design has an appealing threadbare elegance. Note the hems on some of the dresses of Jennifer Tardiff's costumes, and see if these outfits look like they were adapted from drapes. That's the style, and Tardiff's subtle hand makes the gag all the better. Andrew J. Berry's set is a tidy raised stage with a minimal Parisian backdrop and Marianne Meadows's low sculpted lighting is very showbiz-on-a-budget.

No illusions, in other words. This is theater, these are men (one exception), it's all an impudent lark and it ends in heartbreak. Cue the Judy Garland track.

Camille: A Tearjerker by Charles Ludlam. Directed by Christopher Henley. Sound design, David Crandall. With Kim Curtis, Daniel Kenner, John Kevin Boggs, John C. Bailey, Jay Saunders, Erin Kaufman and James Finley. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Sept. 27 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Crystal City. Call 800-494-8497 or visit

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