Arthur Appreciation

King Arthur, what a guy. Somehow the grand old Celt still appeals to the popular imagination. Many works of art have spun out from the legends of Arthur and the Roundtable, and there are good reasons for the current revival of interest in the King and his court--and in the chivalric code, which is a lot more profound than it is generally understood to be. Even in the straitjacket of the musical comedy format, Arthur remains a fascinating figure, and though Lerner and Loewe's Camelot may offer up the most superficial Arthur on record and Country Dinner Playhouse's current production may lack the usual CDP spirit, its one boon is Marcus Waterman--a witty, dashing Arthur who makes up for many of the show's shortcomings by sheer force of personality.

As this version of the story opens, the sorcerer Merlin is called away by a nymph with a program and has no choice but to follow her into captivity under the sea for a few hundred years. After he leaves, young King Arthur hides in a tree as Guinevere arrives to seal a treaty with a wedding. Beautiful, willful and none too bright, Guinevere prays for deliverance from marriage and Arthur overhears. But instead of revealing his identity, he tries to talk her into coming to his glorious court, Camelot. So attractive does it seem that Genny, as he calls her, is soon seduced.

Five years later, Arthur springs for a large, round table in order to make his knights more or less equal and keep competition on the jousting field and not in the castle. Lancelot Du Lac, a foreign gentleman of the French persuasion, hears of the Roundtable and comes to join the knights--first unhorsing Arthur himself (without knowing who he so valiantly tumbles). Arthur is delighted to meet the greatest knight who ever lived.

Lancelot knows who and what he is--he doesn't suffer from poor self-esteem. And all the other knights and the queen herself take an instant dislike to the self-confident warrior. In a joust in which the queen offers her token to three knights who promise to fight Lancelot, one of the knights is killed, and Lance prays over him and raises him from the dead. Well, that does it for Genny--she's hooked, and so is the purest knight. The two get into some heavy mental adultery, and Arthur, no fool, soon figures out what's going on. But the two restrain their passion, so he lets it go.

But when Arthur's illegitimate son Mordred arrives to stir up trouble, the knights grow restive for war under his evil influence. Genny and Lance kiss, are caught in the act, and just as Genny is to be burned at the stake, Lance shows up with an army to rescue her. (In other versions of the tale, the adultery goes on for years before Arthur learns the truth.)

Waterman is a clever enough actor to pull off the transition from young manhood to middle-aged wisdom. He incorporates lots of easy little movements and expressions to give the king life again. This Arthur is tender, smart and subject to dark thoughts. Waterman gives him enough intelligence to make his idealism sound like rational planning, but Arthur's passion--both for his wife and for his policy--is the most persuasive thing about the performance.

Keith Rice does some nice work with Lancelot--not his best work this year, but still workmanlike and well-sung. But there's no magic between Rice and lovely Gina Schuh-Turner, whose lackluster reading of Guinevere, while prettily sung, lacks real feeling or playful wit. And though Gary Montgomery makes a delightful King Pellinore, Brad Ramsey's Mordred seems self-conscious and overdrawn.

Another problem with this production is the anemic musical accompaniment. Even with some lively staging and a few great tunes like "How to Handle a Woman" and "C'est Moi," the band sometimes undermines the vocals with a wimpy lounge style.

There are dozens of versions of Arthur's story--almost any one of which is more interesting than this one. In this musical, there is no Holy Grail, no Siege Perilous, no Green Giant and no details about knightly deeds of prowess. And yet despite all its shortcomings, even this Arthur has his charms: He makes law in a barbarous time, creates grace and beauty amidst the excesses of a warlike culture, and requires his knights to use "might for right" in the defense of the helpless. It may be a silly musical, but the story is bigger than the form.


Camelot, through November 3 at Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 799-1410.

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