Split Personality: WSC?s Camille has legs as a comedy and as a melodrama.

You’d be hard-pressed to approach a Charles Ludlam drag travesty as anything other than farce, so it’s startling to discover that what works best in Washington Shakespeare Company’s mounting of Ludlam’s Camille: A Tearjerker is melodrama. And melodrama played straight, as it were—though not of course, straight; with mirror balls spinning overhead and much lip-synching of Judy Garland tunes, no one’s going to mistake the belligerently pixilated evening at the Clark Street Playhouse for a conventional Camille. But fans of the 1936 film may be surprised at just how much Garbo there is in Jay Hardee’s tattooed, more muscularly consumptive Marguerite Gautier. Sweet, flirty and provocative, yet somehow innocent as he flounces around the stage in a blonde Mohawk and azure eye-shadow Frank N. Furter might well consider overdone, Hardee’s Dame is the real Camille—insistent that society treat a working girl like the lady she means to be. Marriage to dashing Armand (James Finley) may not quite be in the cards, but this dame knows domestic partnership can provide many of the same benefits, at least until disapproving family members interfere. Hardee, who was a striking adolescent villainess in WSC’s Children’s Hour a few seasons back, is perfectly capable of playing the part for camp—if you doubt that, just watch him finger-snap a West Side Story jest into submission—but he’s mostly content to let the character breathe. Or rather, cough. And fetchingly, too, albeit with the folks in the sound booth making every hack roar like thunder. By evening’s end, Hardee’s Camille has earned the tears the plot so earnestly jerks, and when she swoons in her beloved’s arms—and swoons, and swoons again—it’s only the insistence on overdoing that turns sniffles to giggles. Christopher Henley’s staging surrounds Hardee with a good deal of physical cleverness—irreverent shadowplay, a bare-buttocked Cupid, costumer Jennfer Tardiff’s male-bosom-baring frocks—and he hit on a real inspiration with those lip-synched ballads that heighten emotions even as they undercut them. Director and company, though, are fighting a cavernous hall in which comic winks tend to get lost, and the sort of bigger gesture that might otherwise come across as hilarious overstatement can seem merely a matter of projecting to the back row. Still, the production seems calibrated to take advantage where it can: Swoon for the laugh, and if it doesn’t come, fall back on melodrama. It’s plenty sturdy.