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Connecticut Theater

"The Ladies of the Camellias"
Yale Repertory Theatre at the University Theatre, New Haven

The question arises: who is to blame-the playwright, the actors, the director? In this case of Yale Rep's "The Ladies of the Camellias," the responsibility, it would seem, must be shared equally.

This talky piece, which runs round in circles and goes nowhere, is somewhat reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw in style and of other writers in content. But why repeat what Shaw and others have done and said so well? Playwright Lillian Groag offers nothing new in this examination of theater and its raison d'etre. And despite occasional clever repartee, it is more a plate of rehashed potatoes than a bouquet of flowers, camellias notwithstanding.

More on the play itself: it deals with the meeting of two legendary divas of the Victorian era-Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse-and one quite rightly expects fireworks at such a meeting. But this never comes off, and, in fact, the playwright waits an appallingly long time to bring the two together on stage.

What goes on here? Each actress is in the throes of performing Alexandre Dumas fils' "La Dame aux Camelias." Bernhardt is known for her grace and strong voice, while Duse is lauded for her emotional intensity and spontaneity. In this respect, Groag has dug into the history books to give accurate information. Even Dumas himself is on hand, as well as the actors who play Armand to each Marguerite. Groag stresses the grande dame style of each, with roaring pets in the background and snakes in the floral arrangements.

Billed as a comedy, "Camellias" makes some attempts at farce and other attempts at light-hearted sophistication. But no clear tone is ever established. Director James Bundy must take equal responsibility for this. And though he dresses his Bernhardt extravagantly in feathered attire, with feathers that end up in other players' mouths, this hardly passes for high-level wit. And he has his Russian revolutionary rush about the stage brandishing a gun, when any of the characters standing behind him could easily have disarmed him. Isn't this careless stage blocking? And he has Duse played soulfully, presumably, but this performance falls upon the stage like a ton of bricks. Is this the fault of Bundy or actress Felicity Jones? …which brings us back to the initial question-who is to blame?

As for the other actors, there are several competent performers-John G. Preston and Marcelo Tubert make an amusing duo as the two Armands, and Judith-Marie Bergan is a charming Bernhardt. But best in the cast-and the most interesting character by far-is Triney Sandoval as Ivan, the Russian revolutionary and one-time director. Though he tends toward a one-note performance with much shouting (again, the director?), he does give a real, believable vitality to the role. And his character does present a through-line to the play.

In all, Lillian Groag is quite capable of writing sharp, sophisticated, amusing dialogue, and she is a competent researcher. Now, all that she has to do is write a play.

-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 4, 2004

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