Silly and sad, ‘Camille’ captures heroine’s plight _lowres

Photo by John Barrois -- A.J. Allegra as the comic, ultimately tragic, Camille.

Under the deft direction of Jeffery Roberson, The NOLA Project’s production of “Camille: A Comedy in Drag” is much like the tasty Cajun boucherie that uses every part of the pig but the squeal. Not a single theatrical moment is wasted.

From Mid-City Theatre’s Su Gonczy, who effortlessly managed a sold-out house and started the show right on time, to a perfect comedic bit staged after the final curtain, the evening delivered top-flight entertainment.

Marguerite Gautier, aka Camille, was born on the pages of the Alexandre Dumas novel “La Dame aux Camélias.” Greta Garbo defined her with luminous movie magic; Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” introduced her to a new generation; and Charles Ludlam, founder of the Theater of the Ridiculous movement, took her on a riotous romp.

This production, written by Ludlam, is also guided by his style, which, as artistic director A.J. Allegra states in the program notes, blends “classic literature, impressive knowledge of theatrical styles, and defiance of heteronormative expectations.” So in this production, some men play women and some women play men.

The story begins in mid-1800s Paris. Camille (Allegra) is a beautiful Parisian courtesan. Despite being ill, she parties with a fierce passion.

The Baron de Varville (Ricky Graham), her latest admirer, offers to pay all of her debts if she will become his mistress. However, she meets Armand Duval (Sam Dudley), and true love blooms. The couple escapes to a country retreat, where their love and her health flourish — that is, until living without money proves too challenging and Armand’s father (Jason Kirkpatrick) persuades Camille to give up his son.

She sacrifices her love for his good and returns to decadent Paris. Ultimately, consumed by love and consumption, upon her death bed, Camille reunites with Armand and her story comes to its inevitable tragic end.

Throughout the evening, Allegra displays a perfect sense of comic timing. His coquettish asides and witty one-liners are delivered with a deeply nuanced femininity. He plays the part with impressive physicality, deliciously subtle and over-the-top double takes, and Camille’s cough goes right to the boundary of bad acting but never crosses it.

He looks ever-so-much like Jennifer Aniston’s muscular sister. Even with all the silliness, Allegra captures, to the very core, Camille’s deep loneliness.

It is perhaps in his hands, which gently touch her lover’s face, that we no longer see him as a man. Though drag is in the title, there is nothing of a drag queen’s schtick in this performance.

Michael Sullivan seems to channel Tim Conway from those great Carol Burnett shows, where one look from him could make the whole cast struggle to stay in character. As Camille’s aging maid, Nanine, Sullivan even kept the comic pace churning during the brilliantly choreographed scene changes.

The rest of the cast delivers solid performances. Dudley’s Armand hits the right balance between farce and sincere ardor. Graham got every ounce of funny out of the word “fan.”

Both Kyle Daigrepont as Prudence and Sean Patterson as Olympe do exactly what is needed to be done and more. Kristin Witterschein engagingly portrays Saint Gaudens, an ancient lecherous man. Keith Claverie, Erin Shaw and Kirkpatrick give performances that solidly support the evening’s mirth.

The small stage’s proscenium arch is created and dramatically draped with red velvet curtains, and Joan Long’s minimalist set, with a nod to 1800s pen-and-ink illustrations, captures the mood and gives the actors plenty of space to frolic.

Jaime Bird’s props design is a delightful reference to the Theatre of Ridiculous style, and the lighting design created by Dan Zimmer can, when needed, turn Allegra into the spitting image of Garbo.

Cecile Casey Covert’s costumes, though reading a bit more plantation then Parisian, on more than one occasion quite literally stop the show.

But it is in Roberson’s capable hands that this show shines. Built on brilliant pacing and balanced stage blocking, this production makes it abundantly clear that he has complete mastery of how to use puns, vamping, double entendre, homages to pop culture, physical comedy, sight gags, spit takes and definitely pathos to tell the story and engage his audience.

It is obvious that everyone on stage and off is having a very good time as they are willingly transported to a place where gender really isn’t that big of a deal.