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Barbara Knott: A Shining Long Moment of Theater Magic in Lawrenceville
Question: what legend has given birth to major art works century by century since it was chronicled during the Middle Ages in England and France? Answer: the tales of Arthur, King of Britain, champion of the arts of war and peace: courage and skill in combat and excellence in the chivalric code that compelled civility, equality, camaraderie, creativity, and dedication to the feminine, all embodied in his person and in the mythical Camelot, home of the Roundtable that seated the questing knights of King Arthur’s court; Arthur, whose mentor was Merlin the Magician, whose enemy was his own son Mordred, and whose queen was Guinevere, centerpiece of a triangle in which her heart was torn between friendship and loyalty to her king and erotic longing for the king’s greatest knight Lancelot. It is a timeless set of stories that inevitably constellates all sorts of images of what it means to be human.
Some happy intuition led the Aurora Theatre to select the musical Camelot for the first production in their new Lawrenceville space. And a splendid choice it was, as I can attest from having been present at the closing night performance where the state-of-the-art theater with intimate and comfortable seating was filled with a warmly appreciative audience.
Imagine, then, the Castle: a century-old Methodist Church (built in the same era as the Lawrenceville courthouse) made of brick and white columns, expanded to include space for a theater’s many needs, including parking. My friends and I enter from the parking deck to the lobby and into the house. We sit in the very center of the second row seats, roomy, cushy, and gently rocking. One friend points out how shallow the seating area is, how there really are no bad seats. We watch the curtain go up, diagonally drawn so that it rises as it opens. My eyes open wide as the lights come up on … Arthur himself, the magnet of this major legend of the Western World, the exquisitely human Arthur who must contain conflicting emotions thought by most to be unbearable, but who bears them anyway: who appears and lives and disappears to heal his terrible wounds and be ready to return when Britain (the world) is desperate for him. Anyone tempted to say, How about now?
Whence comes this marvelous story? Let me sketch what we know:
The Romans left their occupation of Britain in 410 CE, after which several Celtic battle commanders continued to fight Anglo-Saxon invaders and were driven into present-day Wales and Cornwall, Ireland and Scotland. There is some circumstantial evidence that one of these military leaders was called Arthur and is the figure on whom the tales were based. The most interesting piece I recall from my graduate course in the Arthurian legends is that there was a spate of naming children Arthur during the 6th century in Britain. (Already there is a hint of the similarity in charisma that links Arthur to John Kennedy, for whom hundreds, perhaps thousands of children were named during the l960s.) Some of the exploits of this “Arthur” were passed down by word of mouth by troubadours for several centuries until they began to be written and elaborated in England and across the channel in France. When the tales leapt across the channel from England to Brittany, the way was prepared for the French Lancelot du Lac to join the British court and for the Grail legend to enter the cycle of stories. Cretien de Troyes wrote his romances in the l2th century and created the foundation for the work of Sir Thomas Malory in the l5th. These two provided the general shape of the tales as we know them today.
A resurgence of creative production based on the Arthurian legends occurred in Europe during the 19th century with Richard Wagner’s operas Lohengrin and Parsifal, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and the pre-Raphaelite paintings (a print of John William Waterhouse’s the Lady of Shalott hangs in my living room). In America, Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. After the turn of the century T. S. Eliot picked up the Arthurian motif of the wasteland and the wounded fisher king as a central image in his poem “The Wasteland.” C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams adapted the legends into novels. Then T. H. White wrote his charming five-book novel The Once and Future King and finally, in l960, the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, based on White’s book, opened on Broadway. Its popularity was given a boost when it became known as a favorite of the President and after JFK was assassinated and Jackie Kennedy offered the line from Camelot's lead song, "Don't let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known/As Camelot," to journalist Theodore White as part of her husband’s legacy in America.
The musical has been produced consistently since its opening. And for good reason. It has all the elements of a popular show (compelling story, exciting songs, humor) and stretches the audience toward intelligent experience and response (wonderfully witty lyrics and a profound theme). I became acquainted with the cast recording of Camelot during the l960s but was never until now in the right place at the right time to see the show.
In the Aurora Theatre production, Arthur is played by Anthony Rodriguez, whose physical presence provides an image of the meaning of Arthur’s name in Welsh: the bear. Fully middle-aged, as Arthur becomes during the play, Rodriguez nevertheless captures the youthful Arthur in the opening scene. Arthur reveals himself to be an eager learner (Merlin has taught him the world by changing him into different animals), more boy than man (Merlin still calls him by his childhood nickname Wart), shy and naïve about women but too much the “once and future king” not to warm up to the lovely girl who has been brought to become his bride and who is full of longing for the “simple joys of maidenhood.” Her opening song suggests the wit of Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics, gently mocking the medieval code of chivalry, as when she wonders, “Shall a feud not begin for me? Shall kith not kill their kin for me?” and fancies starting “a little war.” That notion foreshadows the big war that is to come, bringing an end to…but we are ahead of ourselves.
There is nothing really girlish about this Guinevere, played ripely by Marcie Millard (in high contrast to the ever-virginal Julie Andrews who created the role). Once Arthur comes down out of the tree, he sings to her of Camelot, setting up its perfection mainly in images of weather and proclaiming that it is a most congenial spot for “happily ever-aftering,” another instance of foreshadowing.
At this point we realize that there is a fine small orchestra hidden somewhere nearby, that both lead singers are very good, that the actors are miked subtly so that we can hear the nuances of their renditions, and that we are in for a jolly time. We are not mistaken.
The set is a lovely combination of a suspended arch that hearkens back to the Roman influence on the Middle Ages, a platform with stairs that allows for levels of verticality, and unfilled space that opens the story to the world it moves around in. Costumes are just as they should be: evocative of the medieval period, interesting to look at, not distracting except in one instance where the touch of humor is worth it: Sir Pellinore, a comic figure with hints of Don Quixote, wears an animal skin (he has been living in the forest wilderness) made of fox furs (head, feet and tails intact) like the fur hanging in my closet that I inherited from my grandmother-in-law.
Camelot is an instance in which the main theatrical challenge is to live up to the superb script, and this the Aurora ensemble does: acting, choreography, dancing, singing, musical accompaniment are on the upper edge of competent, going toward thrilling. And a powerful thrill, not to mention a shudder and a gasp, is evoked by the arrival of the “French Prometheus unbound” Lancelot, who declaims his qualifications for serving at the Table Round. Bradley Bergeron carries the considerable weight of the role splendidly, and one couldn’t help noticing that this “envy of every saint” ringing out the cry “C’est Moi!” has full, sensual lips that suggest his vulnerability to seduction by the queen who is herself across the stage becoming aroused to enter into flowery combat with this smug and saucy knight.
Ever since I learned about the Old Germanic warrior’s custom of yelping—that is in common parlance bragging—about his achievements, I have imagined its purpose to be to rouse the blood for competition. Here Lancelot’s song sets the court on edge; only Arthur sees “the boy’s” virtue. The rest are eager (as they declare to Guinevere when she draws them out) to “smash and mash him,” “vivisect him,” “serve him to her Highness en brochette.” Of course, there is yelping and then there is yelping. When one yelper bests another not once but three times, what can one do but fall in love with him? And it goes without saying that Guinevere will soon capitulate in the presence of Lancelot's breathtaking battle skills and his naïve charm. The court follows suit.
The individuality of the knights is expressed by Jimi Kocina as Sir Dinadan, Jacob Wood as Sir Sagamore, and Will Evans as Sir Lionel, mainly during separate solo stanzas in the song “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” where they each promise Guinevere they will defeat the upstart Lancelot. The cast ensemble presents a talented and unified accompaniment throughout: Angela Nicole Harris, Taylor Driskell, Sims Lamason, Jeremy McShan, Edward Sneed, Micki Weiner and Ricardo Aponte dance and sing with aplomb. In “The Lusty Month of May,” where we learn that Camelot is no pious community, the ensemble makes a chorus with Guinevere, asserting the value of having a month when “everyone goes blissfully astray.”
This playfully wholesome attitude toward “the lusty” turns destructive with the appearance of the sinister Mordred, who was conceived in incest between Arthur and his half-sister Morgause. Mordred, played as creepy and despicable by Brandon O’Dell, arrives already twisted toward evil to claim his identity as Arthur’s son, and Arthur lets him know that he will have to earn recognition by showing character, a task the villain of the piece is unable to do. His interest flows only to hateful deeds, and he contaminates the other knights as can be heard in “Fie on Goodness” where, seeing through his eyes, they lament the dullness of an ideal Camelot where kindness, meekness, chastity and good behavior have made them glum and depressed. Their song is a rousing appreciation of the excitement that comes with war and rapine. Eventually Mordred has his way by compromising the queen and her lover so that she is brought to trial after Lancelot escapes. Before the downfall occurs, Lancelot sings what must surely be one of the loveliest of songs from a musical, “If Ever I Would Leave You.” I knew it would take some throat and style to come up to Robert Goulet’s exquisite recording of the piece, and Mr. Bergeron was just fine.
After Mordred’s betrayal, Arthur is presented with his greatest challenge: to return to a code in which Might makes Right (by which he could free the queen) or to live by the egalitarian principles he has built up in the court of the Roundtable (in which the knights have equal voice with him). Their one voice declares that Guinevere must be punished for betraying the king. The fact that Arthur sees the love of Lancelot and Guinevere and does not denounce it, that he sees the challenge to his leadership and does not betray his own principles, is a human achievement of great worth: he is able to hold the tension of opposites inside himself, to allow the court’s attempt to burn Guinevere but to arrange the burning to take place at 5:00 a.m. (a time considered propitious for Lancelot to rescue her), to go to battle with his knights against Mordred and his followers and defeat them, to receive his wound and watch his ideal of Camelot come apart, to forgive Lancelot and Guinevere and to learn that she will live her life apart from the world in a convent, himself to retreat from the world to Avalon but not before he calls for Tom of Warwick and sings the Camelot reprise, urging him to “ask every person if he’s heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if he has not, that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot.”
All three leads are able to suggest the simplicity with which the characters of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot begin their stories, and to grow with them into complexity as they individually experience one version of what it means to be human: to embrace an ideal and then to be broken by it and then to accept life on its own terms without becoming cynical (a quality they defeat even as they defeat Mordred). But it is the king who must carry the heart of the play, and Anthony Rodriguez never falters. I believed in his Arthur completely, and I suffered with him and felt his triumph, which is the triumph of character.
Merlin, played with authority by Tony Brown, leaves the stage all too soon when the nymph Nimue appears to conjure him to another world "Come with Me"). Laura Stebbins (Nimue) and her dancers make a delightful scene in luring Merlin away so that Arthur will be forced to act without the wizard’s magic. Merlin, who sees time backwards, has some engaging moments but needs more time on stage. Daniel Burnley as Sir Pellinore (of the fox furs) has sufficient time to establish his irascible presence. Jordan Humphrey makes his one appearance as Tom of Warwick at the end. True to his role, the boy actor listens and convinces us that Tom will indeed go forth and proclaim Arthur’s words.
One imagines that Tom's name refers to Sir Thomas Malory, whose Le Morte D’Arthur was the richest telling of the stories toward the end of the Middle Ages, so that Malory is foreshadowed here, as is our presence in the theater at this moment, when we are witnessing the most recent telling of the splendid tales.
Kudos to Ricardo Aponte (choreographer), Ann-Carol Pence (music), to Rob Dillard (lighting), Patrick Campbell and Geoffrey Brown (sets), Fiona Leonard (costumes), Chris Bartelski (sound) and to all their crew for contributing elements that are “just right” for the play. Director Freddie Ashley handled the production very well: the pacing was good, the acting lived up to the script, the scenic and sound elements were very nicely integrated.
The only flaws I noticed were in the script: not enough time on stage for Merlin to work his magic with the audience, and too quick a rush at the end toward the falling of Camelot and the urgent need to tell the stories. Nonetheless, it was a fine script with delightful, touching and memorable songs (so memorable that I am now ready to see if I can get them out of my mind by listening to some Doors).
And I hope you’ll open the doors to The Castle in Lawrenceville at your next opportunity. Visit their website at www.auroratheatre.com. I have been following their progress for several years at their previous residence in Duluth, especially since Al Stilo, who used to be in charge of group sales at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival where I knew him, joined the Aurora as their Director of Sales and Marketing. He has kept up a steady stream of news about Aurora productions and plans, to which I have responded by taking myself and friends there for afternoons and evenings at the theater. I have also sent many students to the Aurora for their first live theater experience, and to my knowledge they have never been disappointed. Congratulations to Al and to Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence who have nurtured the budding theater long enough to see it flower into a highly professional and deeply satisfying performance venue.
Copyright ©2007 Barbara Knott · All Rights Reserved
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