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Why stage Camelot? Well, the songs are sweet, the story crowd-pleasingly romantic, and the medieval setting an invitation for designers to make pretty picturesall of which means the box office is likely to be pretty good. That’s at least four decent reasons to put the creaky old Lerner & Loewe warhorse back on its unsteady feet. If you’re a dinner theater.
If you’re one of the most influential regional stages in the country, thoughif you are in fact one of the founding institutions of a movement that emerged to fight the dumbing-down of the American theateryou’ve gotta find reasons that aren’t rooted in either pocketbook or sentiment. And Arena Stage decidedly has not.
The scrupulously fair will point out that director Molly Smith has made a gesture or two in the direction of the Round Table-as-United Nations idea. She populates the court of King Arthur, for instance, with knights from Africa, Asia, and other terras that would have been almost as incognita to a British king of the era. (Matt Bogart’s Lancelot is of course French, as the text indicates; Kevin M. Burrows’ Sir Lionel wears the tartans and braids of a wild ‘n’ woolly Scot; Kate Suber plays Guenevere as an Irish spitfire.)
The director seems clear, too, about the roots of the play’s political conundrum. In one particularly efficient bit of foreshadowing, she places Steven Skybell’s Arthur at the center of a circle of warriors who’ve put down their weapons to symbolize the peaceableness of the kingdom this remarkable monarch has convinced them to build. What started as a noble gesture has formed a ring of steel around the man who inspired ita metaphoric expression of a political circumscription that becomes all too clear when Arthur’s civil-society dream leaves him powerless to deal with the rabble-rousing Mordred.
And there’s something commendable about how clearly Smith and Suber communicate the poignancy of Guenevere’s character arc: A self-involved naif who can joke, at the outset, about missing the chance to “cause a little war” among competing suitors, Suber’s Jenny becomes a woman self-aware enough to lament the human and the historical costs when her affair with Lancelot becomes the spark for a bloody civil conflict.
But Smith lets slide as many opportunities as she explores. She does nothing specific, for instance, to unify the transformation themes threaded through Alan Jay Lerner’s book. It’s Guenevere’s arrival, after all, that spurs Arthur’s leap from accidental king to aspiring peacemaker. (The notion that women and domesticity tame the male beast is an old-fashioned one, to be sure, but it’s there clear as day in the text.) Having been remade by his queen’s influence, Arthur in turn remakes the political map of his world. And in doing so, he brings the revolutionary ideas of Christianityin the person of the devout Lancelotto his kingdom. (The imposition of a new moral system on an old society proves painful in every Arthur story, and it’s no more incidental an idea in this version than it is in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.)
There’s no hint of awareness in Smith’s concept, eitherno subtext, no stage business, no nuthin’that Arthur’s vision incorporates ideas about social justice both radical and age-old. His call for an England governed by the ideal of “might for right” might have come with equal conviction from the mouth of an Old Testament prophet or from the lips of a Kennedyand surely, in a production staged in the nation’s capital to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination, it might be worthwhile to explore why we’ve never been able to make the formula work.
No one at Arena seems to have noticed that there’s something a little homoerotic in the intensity of Arthur and Lancelot’s relationship, or that there’s room for something more exciting than Maypole-dancing in “The Lusty Month of May.” Even Smith’s broad multiculti gesture doesn’t mean much: A bolder director might have found a way to make a statement with a brown-skinned Guenevere or a coal-black Lance, but the principal players in this production are as lily-white as the Broadway originals. And while it’s probably unfair to suggest that the actors playing Smith’s “Sir Olatungi,” “Sir Timur Khan,” “Lady Lui,” and “Lady Anaya” are being exploited, there’s no avoiding the observation that they’re essentially window dressing: Smith gives them less stage business than she gives King Pellinore’s dog.
Ah, well. At least they look fabulous. Costumer Paul Tazewell apparently got his hands on somebody’s credit card, and word on the street is that the drapers and seamstresses of Washington are looking fatter and happier than usual: These Arthurians wrap themselves in furs and feathers, embroideries and brocades, tapestry doublets and claret crepe gowns and magnificent fantasias on themes of leather and mail. Guenevere’s tournament gown alone is enough to make a drag queen weep.
The only misstep is Tazewell’s design for Mordred, and even that might work on an actor with a more threatening physical presence; poor Jack Ferver, though, resembles nothing so much as an outraged vulture.
It would be gratifying to report that if it hasn’t
mustered the intellectual resources that would make a convincing case for Camelot, Arena has at least assembled musical resources capable of selling what are some of the Broadway songbook’s sweetest tunes. Alas, no: Suber’s soprano turns unpleasantly steely on the money notes, and Skybell seems constantly short of breath. Bogart’s mild and undistinguished baritenor is buttery-smooth, true, but it’s a trifle too croony for a figure as supposedly commanding as Lancelot, and he has trouble even with the limited range of “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
The chorus is solid enough, though, and George Fulginiti-Shakar does what is doubtless his usual fine work with the 16-piece orchestra; it’s a shame that the Fichandler’s wretched amplification system and Timothy M. Thomson’s pancake-flat sound design suggest that the ensemble is playing somewhere in Arlington.
If all of this begins to sound disrespectful, to lose sight of the fact that well-intentioned people worked hard to pull this show together, wellyeah. Sorry, folks, but the substantial paycheck that comes with an Arena Stage job comes with a substantial responsibility, too. The heritage of the house demands that it produce work with something to saythat it find fresh voices, or at least fresh ways to hear the old ones. Like too much of Arena’s work lately, Camelot is mostly empty noise. CP