'Camisado': discovering self even under layers of theatricalism

August 20, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Kathleen Barber's "Camisado" -- Fells Point Corner Theatre's entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival -- is a coming-of-age play with a twist. Although both of the main characters grow up in the end, one is a decidedly late bloomer -- a woman om jer 40s.

Annie lives alone by choice. She likes to think of herself as invisible. Ever since her fiance jilted her two decades ago, she's played it safe, deliberately avoiding romantic relationships. Except for her frequent nightmares, her life is perfect, Annie informs us in one of the play's many passages of direct-audience address.

Then she meets Dean, a con artist half her age who has spent most of his life manipulating relationships. In short order, he sweet-talks his way into Annie's apartment and into her bed.

Con artists are dramatic by nature, and playwright Barber has come up with a compelling combination by pairing this one with a middle-aged woman who is afraid of life. Annie is incapable of telling a lie, and Dean is incapable of telling the truth. Put them together, and the result is an involving character study.

Enhancing our involvement are the fine performances of Gloria Henderson and Gregory Kemper. Henderson is an actress who uses her entire body to portray a character. You can practically monitor Annie's personal growth by watching the slow but steady improvement in Henderson's posture. And, as Dean, whose sweet smile and innocent gaze are the chief tools of his trade, Kemper milks his boyish charm for all it's worth.

The effect these characters have on each other is ample drama (( in itself. But Barber, a veteran of four previous Baltimore Playwrights Festivals, has attempted to enhance that drama with some non-naturalistic, theatrical flourishes. Criticizing a play for having too much theatricalism is a little like complaining about having too much money. However, while the playwright is to be commended for her experimentation, she has overloaded "Camisado" with riches.

Annie's black-lighted dream sequences, in which her scantily clad alter ego enacts her fears and fantasies, are undoubtedly intended to illuminate her character. But the more elaborate these sequences get -- the most complicated features opera singers, soldiers, a prisoner and Annie's gun-toting alter ego -- the more they get in the way of the central business of watching Annie change and grow.

And though these sequences have been integrated into the production with admirable skill by director Robert Clingan, they ultimately reveal less about Annie than, for instance, her heart-to-heart scenes with her best friend (Marianne Gazzola Angelella).

Similarly, Annie's monologues contribute another element of theatricalism, but being shown what a character feels is more dramatic than being told about it. Depicting relationships is one of Barber's strengths, and I suspect the conflict between Annie and Dean contains almost enough exposition and tension to propel the action on its own.

Of course, take away Annie's asides and we might miss the meaning of the title. As she explains in her final monologue, "camisado" -- an archaic word for "night attack" -- is a term she discovered in a romantic adventure novel.

pTC Ironically, in a play that errs on the side of excess, this title is a rare example of insufficiency. Barber's script, the 100th production of the 12-year-old festival, is about much more than intruders or nightmares. It's about self-discovery, and underneath the extra frills, this engaging subject shines through brighter than a con man's smile.


When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 5.

Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

Tickets: $9.

Call: (410) 276-7837.

** 1/2

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