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Tears in High Drag

Washington Shakespeare Company’s "Camille" Is a Tearjerker

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Frank Britton and Jay Hardee star in "Camille: A Tearjerker."

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Jay Hardee and James Finley with the cast of "Camille: A Tearjerker."

The Washington Shakespeare Company’s new production of "Camille: A Tearjerker" answers the question "Can one story accommodate the extremes of tragedy and comedy?" with a resounding "Yes, if it is extreme in the first place." What’s more, they throw in the very theatrical elements of a drag show, with marvelous actor Jay Hardee in the title role.

The novel written in 1848 which became both a classic of the stage and screen with such memorable actresses as Sarah Bernhardt and Greta Garbo, and a classic of grand opera as Verdi’s "La Traviata," makes a unique drag show that is fun and funny at one extreme and lives up to the promise of the subtitle "tearjerker" at the other.

The company didn’t just decide one day to have the role of the beautiful but fatally ill prostitute played by a man instead of a woman. The approach is one of the most notable innovations of Charles Ludlam, the author of that other classic of drag theater, "The Mystery of Irma Vep" who, with his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, produced this drag version of the tale in 1973 with Ludlam himself as Camille.

Ludlam subtitled his version "A Travesty on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas Fils" providing both the full title of the original novel and its author, the son (or "fils") of the Alexandre Dumas who had written such hits of the adventure-romance genre as "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers." There were no sword fights in the son’s story, just a heart-touching tale of a love that couldn’t succeed in the Parisian society of its time.

With Hardee as Camille, the production under director Christopher Henley takes on a heft that belies mere transvestitism or camp drag flippantry. That’s not to say that the production isn’t campy, it superbly fits the definition of "camp" as "humorously and outrageously utilizing exaggerated feminine behavior or attitudes." From outrageous costumes (designed by Jennifer Tardiff) to over-the-top strutting and flouncing from actors like Kim Curtis, who makes some of the prose dialogue sound like spirited poetry, and Frank Britton, who lip-synchs nearly flawlessly to Lena Horne’s recording of "Stormy Weather," the production doesn’t shy away from excess. Indeed, the bare bottom of one actor caught in a spotlight is the opening image of the entire show.

Hardee joins in the spirit of humor and high energy vamping for the lighter scenes of the play, but manages to shift to a heart-tugging sadness as his/her character’s illness turns terminal and the romance appears hopelessly undermined by society’s expectations. Hardee takes the show to a higher level of emotional impact with a highly believable performance.

Also impressive are two non-campy performances, those of James Finley as Camille’s lover who hasn’t the fortune she needs to support her life style and John C. Bailey as the lover’s father who begs Camille to break it off before the relationship ruins his son’s reputation beyond repair.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.