Theater in the Rough will open its 2013-2014 season Friday with “The Ladies of the Camellias,” the first of two productions the Juneau-based theater will stage this year.
It’s worth noting right off the bat that the title includes the plural word “Ladies,” a distinction that sets this play apart from the famous novel and play by the younger Alexandre Dumas, “The Lady of the Camellias,” and the tragic opera based on that story, “La Traviata.” Though the “Lady” story serves as a reference point for “Ladies,” the two works are worlds apart in tone and content.
“Ladies” is a comedy, and a silly one at that, according to director Aaron Elmore. But as is usually the case with good plays, there are serious ideas amid the frivolity.
Elmore and partner Katie Jensen first saw the play performed 20 years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and have been wanting to bring it to Juneau ever since, he said.
“We laughed and laughed, and had a great time, so we thought ‘We really have to do this.’ It seemed like a wonderful fit for us, and at long last we found a spot,” he said.
The play, written by Lillian Groag, is built on a “what-if” scenario that pulls a handful of real historical characters into the same room under dramatic circumstances. As the play opens, famous real-life theater superstars Sarah Bernhardt (played by Jensen) and Eleonora Duse (Donnie Gott) are sharing space at Bernhardt’s Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris in 1897. Both are preparing to perform in consecutive productions of “The Lady of the Camellias,” a role for which both were very well known in their day. As everyone at the theater braces for major fireworks between the two huge egos, a gun-wielding Russian anarchist (Dan Wayne) bursts onto the scene and holds the ladies and their cohorts hostage, demanding the release of certain friends in exchange for their safe release.
Also held hostage are Dumas himself (played by Peter Freer, though he would have been dead in 1897), Bernhardt and Duse’s real-life leading men, M. Worms (Zebadiah Bodine) and M. Ando (Fisher Stevens), and Constant Coquelin (Elmore), an actor famous for his role as Cyrano de Bergerac (which Elmore also played in Juneau a few years ago).
As the play progresses it becomes clear that the anarchist is really a radical new type of theater person.
“He’s actually a director, which at that particular time was a brand new innovation coming out of Russia and Germany and being explored in France,” Elmore said, one that ushered in huge changes in the theater.
Though each of the characters takes on a double role as a voice for their position in the theater -- director, writer, actor -- the play is more than a goofy send up of theatrical relationships, Elmore said. The anarchist’s questions are real, as are the ladies’ answers.
“Ivan raises the question to these two ladies, ‘What are you for? What do you do? What good are you? Do you do anything? Do you help anybody? People come to see your plays, they weep and cry, they feel terrible they laugh, or whatever -- who cares? There are people starving, tremendous conflicts, it’s a dreadful place out there -- what are you doing about it?’”
These are questions worth asking, Elmore said, prompting healthy contemplation of Theatre in the Rough’s own role in our community. What do they do this for? Elmore said the answer lies in something that happens on some level during every single performance.
“You’ve got these people up here shouting, you’ve got these people out here watching. At some point they’re in agreement that something happens. It’s not on the stage and it’s not in the audience’s mind entirely, somehow it happens in between, in a miraculous transformation, really. And that’s, for me, what is transporting about theater, and the reason why I can’t stop doing this, exploring this. Because that moment is tremendous.”
Elmore said as director, he is constantly watching his actors to be sure what they are doing on stage is as true and honest as it can be.
“I am positive that people don’t come back to see our plays over and over again because the clothes are great, although sometimes they are, or because the sets are great, because oftentimes they’re not -- although this one’s pretty cool -- I think if there’s anything that we’re bringing over and over again it's that rigorous honesty with ourselves, whether or not we’re doing the play that’s true, that’s real.” He paused. “All of which starts to sound as though this a serious thing, but this is the silliest play, it really is. It’s just great.”
Theatre in the Rough regulars Phil Schempf (as M. Benoit) and Natalia Spengler (as Girl) round out the 10-person cast, and the creative team includes Hadassah R. Nelson as stage manager, Catherine Melville and Alison Talley on lights, and Carl Brodersen and Katie Jensen on sound.
Know and go
What: Theatre in the Rough’s “The Ladies of the Camellias” by Lillian Groag, directed by Aaron Elmore
Where: McPhetres Hall, Parish Hall of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 4th and Gold, downtown
When: Nov. 1-24, with shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, and two Sunday matinées Nov. 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. Free preview tonight, Oct. 31
Details: Tickets at all bookstores, the JACC, at jahc.org and at the door..