"The Lady of Camellias" belongs to that small category of plays that are truly rotten, but apparently indestructible in their popular appeal. Alexandre Dumas fils' saga of the consumptive courtesan Marguerite Gauthier, who nobly gives up the man she loves, it has inspired countless adaptations, an opera and several movie versions. After winter colds, it probably ranks as the second greatest cause for the consumption of Kleenex in the Western world.
The latest incarnation of the lady's doomed life has turned up at the Source Theatre's Warehouse Rep, where it is going under the name of "Camille." Before you get carried away with romantic visions of Greta Garbo, however, you should probably know that Source director Bart Whiteman and his cast have pretty much reworked -- sabotaged, some might say -- the whole affair.
This time the story is set in occupied Paris during World War II. Camille is a hooker, the champion breadwinner in a Pigalle brothel, until she falls for Armand Duval and starts giving away her services for free. Armand's father is a fighter in the French resistance and he persuades Camille to spurn Armand and take up with the treacherous Varville. Varville, it seems, is collaborating with the Germans and somehow -- I never understood exactly how -- without Camille's participation, a plot to kill him will not succeed and France will be done for.
There are traces of the original script, but much of the Source text appears to have come out of cast improvisations. As a result, the evening wavers rather ludicrously between the remnants of Dumas' romanticism and the kind of gritty mumblings once favored by the Actors Studio. The two tones, not especially compatible, are pretty much illustrated by these brief lines: "Goodbye, you foolish boy," breathlessly uttered by Camille; and the considerably blunter "You greedy expletive deleted !" barked by one of her fellow prostitutes.
The point of the whole enterprise baffled me until it finally dawned on me what its real inspiration was. Not Dumas' play. Not reruns of Garbo's movie. Not even the comic perversity that prompted Charles Ludlam to play the title role, unshaven and in drag, in a wild off-Broadway production a decade or so ago. Using "The Lady of Camellias" as his pretext, Whiteman has tried to put together his version of "The Liberation of Skopje."
Source sponsored that courageous and radical Yugoslavian war drama when the Zagreb Theatre Company presented it here in Serbo-Croatian 2 1/2 years ago. Composed of dozens of splintered scenes, further broken up by rock music, it told of the occupation of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, by the Germans during World War II. Source's "Camille" not only addresses a similar subject, but it also uses the same theatrical techniques -- fracturing the plot, wrenching some scenes out of context and repeating them several times, focusing on the humdrum as a surrealistic counterpoint to a greater horror, and having the action unfold simultaneously in several locales to a nightmarish musical score.
There was, however, an authenticity to "Skopje," which was born of the firsthand experience of some of the Yugoslavian company members. "Camille" registers as an imitative experiment at its best, as phony-baloney at its worst. The cast strives to play it "real," but is as uncomfortable with Dumas' bathos as it is with Whiteman's cliche'd notions of a 1940s Parisian bordello.
As Camille, Kathryn Kelley is required to utter some impossibly hoary lines and portray some fairly bloated emotions. The actress does her best not to appear foolish and succeeds -- mainly by retreating from the material and wrapping herself in a cocoon of low-key, cinematic behavior. Alone in the company, Kelley, who has Playmate of the Month looks combined with a fragile intensity on stage, seems marked for greater things.
As for "The Lady of Camellias," having endured for 133 years, it will no doubt survive this pretentious aberration. CAMILLE, adapted from the play by Alexander Dumas fils. Directed by Bart Whiteman; set, Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.; lighting, V. Hana Sellers; costumes, Susan Alison and Zoe Stoffelt. With Kathryn Kelley, William Freimuth, Joan Kelley, Lawrence Redmond, David Striar. At the Source Warehouse Rep through April 13.