`Camelot' shines in shadows of war, love

TheaterReview

November 22, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

What with the continuing onslaught of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, you might think all things medieval (in the case of the first) and all things magic (in the case of both) were becoming a bit much. You might even think a revival of Camelot would be a case of bandwagon-jumping, or worse, overkill.

Well, think again.

Magic and all things medieval are just a small part of what's right about director Molly Smith's moving, resonant, regal production at Washington's Arena Stage.

Consider, for example, the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur assembles an international cadre, yet few productions capture this flavor as spectacularly as costume designer Paul Tazewell has here.

The knights who enter from the corners of the stage have clearly come from the corners of the Earth. There's a Chinese knight, an African knight, a Scot, etc. Seeing this United Nations of knighthood - especially in Washington - you begin to think there might be something to Arthur's plans for world peace.

That's surely what director Smith has in mind. Her interpretation of the Lerner and Loewe classic takes as serious a look at war and peace as it does at love and marriage.

Nor can the timing be overlooked. Arena's run coincides with the 40th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. Shortly after the assassination, his widow explained that Camelot was a favorite of the 35th president. He was especially drawn to the final number, in which Arthur realizes that though his reign may be ending, his dreams will live on.

Particularly at a time when this country once again has troops abroad, it's bittersweet to hear Arthur reflect on the "one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot."

But besides mining the musical for thematic heft, Smith has mounted a production that's rich in pageantry and performances. As Guenevere, Kate Suber has the show's most glorious voice and it is a joy to watch her character grow from a defiant young woman ("The Simple Joys of Maidenhood") to a contented wife to a torn lover ("I Loved You Once in Silence"). Indeed, the adoration that she and Steven Skybell's loyal, stalwart Arthur share at the start of their marriage makes Guenevere's eventual betrayal all the more wrenching. Of course, when Matt Bogart's square-jawed, rumple-haired, hunky Lancelot enters the picture, there's bound to be trouble in paradise, particularly since Bogart pulls off the tricky task of not turning this egotistical braggart ("C'est Moi") into a laughingstock. Instead, much of the comic relief stems, as it should, from old Pellinore, "an absolute cartoon of a man," played with adorable irreverence by J. Fred Shiffman (who doubles as Merlyn).

Only Jack Ferver's Mordred genuinely disappoints. More petulant than villainous, Ferver also wears designer Tazewell's sole misguided costume - a scaly black get-up that makes him look like a cross between a boy biker and a bird caught in an oil spill.

Such missteps are rare, however, in a production that even dares to move the offstage jousting match to center stage. There we witness the noble vision of Equus-style horses (bare-chested men in silver, horse-head helmets) leading their knights into the fray. Fight choreographer Brad Waller and dance choreographer Baayork Lee share the credit for this spectacle.

Their collaborative effort exemplifies what Smith's production does best - blending pomp with substance, pageantry with purpose. Camelot wasn't an immediate hit when it opened in 1960. After Kennedy's death, however, the musical gained a context that reportedly moved audiences to tears. Four decades later, some opening-night theatergoers at Arena also shed tears - high tribute for a show that's not only in the right place at the right time, but that also gets so much right.

Camelot

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays, noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Jan. 4

Tickets: $42-$60

Call: 202-488-3300

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