By Susan Froyd
By Byron Graham
By Robin Edwards
By Bree Davies
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Bree Davies
By Susan Froyd
By Kate Gibbons
At the end of the nineteenth century, Sarah Bernhardt was the grande dame of French theater and Eleonora Duse her Italian counterpart. The two actresses had contrasting strengths. Bernhardt's acting was glamorous and stylized; she posed prettily and had a self-consciously beautiful voice. Duse's approach was more realistic; she believed she needed to feel an emotion before manifesting it on stage. They were both famous for their portrayals of Marguerite Gautier, the doomed, consumptive heroine of La Dame Aux Camelias, and for the exquisite tenor of their death scenes in this play. Naturally, Bernhardt and Duse loathed each other. In The Ladies of the Camellias, playwright Lillian Groag has created an imaginary meeting between these great stars, who, as the play opens, are preparing for separate performances of La Dame Aux Camelias in separate dressing rooms in Bernhardt's Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris.
The script is literate, knowledgeable and often funny, featuring repeated comic motifs and all kinds of theatrical in-jokes. Under Casey Stangl's direction, the acting style is appropriately stagey, and since some of the lines are quite witty, I thought for a while that this Denver Center Theatre Company production might work in an Oscar Wildean way -- as delicious nonsense sanctified by impeccable diction and impermeably self-satisfied posturing. Except that it's impossible for anyone but Wilde to create an evening's worth of Wildean dialogue. Nor is this play swift and tight enough to work as out-and-out farce. Besides, although Ladies wants to be light and silly, it also wants to be more than that. It wants to be a valentine to theater as an art form. And while Groag demonstrates convincingly that theater does endure over time, she never manages to prove that it matters in the slightest.
Into the hermetic, self-important, back-stage setting blows a chill, bracing wind: Ivan, a Russian anarchist who plans to hold Bernhardt and Duse hostage until his comrades are released from prison. Ivan has no use for the women's self-absorbed arrogance. To him they are nothing but playthings of the rich; he sees the theater they create as an immoral distraction from a world of suffering and poverty. Ivan carries a knife and a homemade bomb, and he threatens to blow up the entire theater and everyone in it if his demands are not met. Doubtless because we're all so obsessed with bombers these days, Stangl has made sure that Ivan's bomb is a clearly amateurish affair, and Ivan himself is neither written nor played as a serious threat. Not even momentarily. This is a shame, because an edge of danger would have added spine to a plot that simply refuses to hold together. What a play this might have been if the actresses had been forced to use their talent to survive, if Ivan had come up with some genuinely thrilling ideas for opening up the red-curtained world of theater, or if Groag had chosen to explore the inherent theatricality of politics.
But nothing like that happens, and we're cheated even of the battle of the divas that we've been expecting all evening long. Ultimately, everything dissolves into a welter of words as Bernhardt and Duse attempt to seduce and disarm Ivan -- not because they're afraid of him, but simply to justify their profession. They repeat the same arguments again and again. They act out bits of Shakespeare. Ivan responds to a contemptuous dismissal of Russian theater with a comment about Chekhov that makes him seem a little complex, but then we learn he isn't really a revolutionary at all, only a sulky and frustrated theater director -- and whatever air is left in the plot whooshes out.
Something about both Bernhardt and Duse brought the world to their feet, and it wasn't in evidence on this stage -- though I'm not sure if the fault lies in the performances or the script. While Beverly Leech is a poised, pleasing actress, there's nothing larger than life about her Bernhardt. She doesn't have the melodious voice we expect, or the ability to sweep into a room and monopolize all attention. I enjoyed Monique Fowler's Duse, in particular the low, intense way in which the actress deliberately undercut the dramatic lines. Stephanie Cozart is lively as a young girl who aspires to thespian fame, although hers is a pretty surface performance with an odd reliance on a Cockney accent (which vanishes miraculously when Cozart speaks a few lines from La Dame Aux Camelias). James Knight gives Ivan an accent distractingly like those affected by Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd when they played the Wild and Crazy Guys on Saturday Night Live many years ago. Randy Moore is a precise and dryly funny Benoit. The best performances come from John Hutton and Bill Christ as the divas' two leading men, as they commiserate over the foibles of their respective leading ladies and do their best to hog the limelight themselves. These gentlemen get better every time I see them, and they alone are proof that theater endures.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city