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Adapted by Neil Bartlett after La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils

Directed by Blake Robinson

At the Round House Theatre Bethesda to Oct. 9

Perspective being everything in Neil Bartlett’s freshly considered Camille, it makes sense that James Kronzer’s setting takes a long view. A very long view, actually. The formal drawing room he’s come up with appears to be at least a couple of railroad cars in length, forcibly elongated by the fact that its floor rakes steeply upward on a diagonal from audience level on the right to at least 6 feet higher deep in the wings on the left. The crown molding takes an opposite tack, sweeping sideways on a line that firmly reduces doorway heights as it heads left toward a vanishing point that can’t be more than a few feet beyond the stage’s outer wall.

When it’s lit with deepening shadows by Daniel MacLean Wagner, the effect is a bit like looking sideways into a wind tunnel, albeit one outfitted by a design team that’s spent a lot of time in the hallways of French châteaux. Empty picture frames fill the back wall, and an aging pianoforte topped by a vase of scarlet camellias partly blocks the sweep of the room, establishing an area down front where a brazen 19th-century courtesan named Marguerite Gautier might entertain her clients.

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Given its dimensions, this clearly isn’t an apartment an actual courtesan might inhabit—not even one with a clientele that includes much of fashionable Paris society. So as voyeurs gather to paw Marguerite’s belongings at the estate sale that begins the evening, the stage environment pretty eloquently serves notice that this production intends to take an offbeat slant on a familiar sentimental story. Familiar because it has been produced in so many variations—as the opera La Traviata, as a vehicle for Greta Garbo, as the distinctly Cinderella-ish Pretty Woman—and sentimental because those earlier incarnations have all treated the body-selling, camellia-loving Marguerite as if she were merely a misunderstood good-time girl.

Bartlett’s adaptation reaches back for much of its dialogue to the romantic novel penned by Alexandre Dumas fils, who but had actually lived a variation on the tale he was telling. At the age of 20, Dumas the younger met Marie Duplessis, a popular fille de joie about his age, and they had what was apparently an affair of the heart that ended some six months before her death, of tuberculosis, in 1847. Perhaps because her paying customers were quite celebrated, and the gossip surrounding her was pervasive, when Dumas published La Dame aux Camélias, it was largely accepted as autobiography. The novel tells of a recognizably Duplessis-like whore who gives up young Armand, the love of her life, so he won’t become a social outcast. Dumas’ hastily adapted play sentimentalized the story further—partly to satisfy the censors who kept it off French stages for almost three years—and subsequent adaptations have so watered down the title character’s profession that she scarcely seems a working girl at all.

Bartlett’s version, which premiered two years ago in London and is making its American debut at Round House, makes Marguerite a harlot once again, placing her in a monde that’s unmistakably demi-, surrounded by other call girls and the various men who pay the upkeep on their apartments, all attired by designer Rosemary Pardee in silks that look every bit as lived-in as they do elegant. The dialogue is a contemporary rendering of the vernacular Dumas used in the novel—not the perfumed phrasing of costume drama—a heady mix of vulgarity and plain speaking well-suited to describing “what beauty looks like when it rots.” When one of Marguerite’s prostitute friends responds to a query as to whether she’s hungry by leering, “I could certainly toy with a leg of chicken,” there’s no mistaking what appetite she’s prepared to satisfy.

This being the local directorial debut of Round House’s new artistic director, Blake Robison, it’s gratifying to report that the staging is as authoritative about down-to-earthiness as the script is. Marguerite (Angela Reed) kicks off her shoes, throws herself to the floor in decidedly uncoquettish poses, and coughs up a storm—the sort of deep, hacking, chest-tearing barks that make you wonder whether the actress will have a voice at the end of the play’s run. Aubrey Deeker plays young Armand as a coltish, impetuous lad, so convinced of the curative power of his love that even after he’s seen blood dripping down Marguerite’s chin, he doesn’t hesitate to stop her coughing with a kiss.

Sarah Marshall is all cheery impudence as the heroine’s hatmaking best buddy, Kathryn Kelley lets you see the worry lines deepening in an attentive maid’s visage, and Dan Manning’s righteous stolidity as Armand’s protective father seems just the sort of thing that might stop a love-struck Marguerite dead in her tracks. The others are no less adept, whether administering opiates or sniping from the sidelines as the director sends his heroine first into a losing battle with society, then into a losing battle with her illness, finally setting her to lurch in great looping arcs as a flurry of unsent letters drifts down from the heavens to carpet the stage.

It’s worth noting that the stylizing of this climactic, hallucinatory sequence—not to mention the scene-setting projected chapter titles and the deliberate angularity of the production elements—works against any chance that this version of Marguerite’s tragic story will move an audience the way its sentimental incarnations have. Bartlett’s take on the divergent social status of prostitutes and their clients, the baldly commercial nature of their relationship, the physical realities of illness, may restore immediacy and realism to Dumas’ tale, but the effect isn’t to make it more affecting. Melodrama’s passions need to be steamy, whereas this new Camille is steeped in rationalism, with fierceness of a socially conscious, intellectually grounded sort. That doesn’t make it a mellow drama, exactly—there’s still a rush-and-tumble aspect to the story—but neither does it inspire tears. CP