Ah, the tragedy of “Camille,” the story of a doomed Parisian mistress who lives by her beauty and charm and ultimately sacrifices everything for love.
In her iconic death scene, the consumption-wracked courtesan Marguerite Gautier, whose love is shattered by the need to conform to the morality of her times, weeps, “Perhaps it’s better if I live in your heart, where the world can’t see me.”
Her story has jerked tears from audiences and readers alike since she first appeared in Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel “La Dame aux Camélias.” She’s been the inspiration for the opera “La Traviata,” Broadway plays, the Greta Garbo film and Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge.”
Now as part its 10th anniversary season, The NOLA Project will put its stamp on Marguerite’s story with its production of Charles Ludlam’s version of “Camille” at the Mid-City Theatre from Jan. 29 to March 1.
This comedy that strives to be equal parts whoop-up fun and heartbreaking pathos also serves as a tribute to actor, director and playwright Ludlam, one of the founders of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Started in New York City in 1967, this theatrical genre eschewed naturalistic acting and made a very conscious effort to be shocking, disturbing and, well, ridiculous. “Camille,” with its over-the-top melodramatic moments, lends itself perfectly.
Ludlam’s productions often featured cross-dressing actors and outrageous physical comedy. He brought elements of queer/camp performance to avant-garde theater and influenced the world of theater far beyond his plays by opening the door for discussions about gender roles both on and off stage.
“He is a pioneer of theater, and we cannot forget what he did,” said Camille’s director, Jeffery T. Roberson, perhaps better known as his drag persona, Varla Jean Merman. “We want to keep Charles Ludlam’s impact on theater alive. He’s influenced the likes of Charles Busch, John Waters and even the work of Ryan Murphy. He was a true genius.”
Roberson directs a cast that plans to fearlessly and ridiculously camp up this tragic love story. Ricky Graham joins The NOLA Project as the sinister Baron de Varville; Sam Dudley plays Armand, the passionate yet penniless suitor; and the tubercular Marguerite is played by NOLA Project’s artistic director, A.J. Allegra.
The cast also includes company members Keith Claverie, Jason Kirkpatrick and Kristin Witterschein. Joining in the fun will be New Orleans’ thespian treasures Kyle Daigrepont, Michael Sullivan, Sean Patterson and Erin Shaw.
Ludlam’s version is one that NOLA Project members hold close to their hearts. While attending New York University a decade ago, several company members were cast in Tisch School of the Arts’ production of Ludlam’s “Camille.”
“We’ve spent years thinking about doing it again,” Allegra said. “This play is meaningful to a lot of us. I know it had a profound impact on my life. Ten years have passed since college, and I understand the script so much better now.”
Much like Ludlam’s ground-breaking portrayal of Marguerite, Allegra is more interested in being an actor playing a woman than a female impersonator posing as one. His performance will be more about emotional depth than about donning a gown and heels.
Roberson is enjoying his role as director. He often directs himself and fellow actor-writer Graham in their many productions, such as their recent sold-out hit “Gone With the Breaking Wind.”
“But this time, I get to sit back and enjoy the fun,” he said.
As a director, Roberson knows there is no fooling the audience. He is guiding his cast to find “intimate psychological truth” in their characters, asking them to commit to their parts and believe that the magic will happen.
“There are elements of camp with all its irony, theatricality and hilarity in this performance, but the play is also about love, sacrifice and death,” he said. “I tear up in rehearsal every night. It’s a delicate balance between humor and bitter truthfulness, and finding that balance is where it gets interesting.”
Dumas’ romance is the quintessential melodrama, perfect pickings for a talented cast to turn into a flamboyant and ridiculous night of gut-busting laughter. Yes, ribald jokes will be woven through the performance, but if all goes right, expect to leave the theater moved by “Camille’s” timeless and enduring love story.