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Generations of opera-goers have swooned for the sweeping grandeur of La Traviata, the ultimate heartrending love story. Verdi’s musical masterwork takes its subject from Camille, a classic melodrama by Alexandre Dumas fils, now receiving a rare revival from Quintessence Theatre Group.
Dumas fils (son of the author famous for Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) adapted his own novel La Dame aux camélias for the stage in 1852, and it was subsequently translated into English by the actor Matilda Heron, who turned the title role into a great stage success for herself. While the opera it inspired remains perennially popular, Camille has largely fallen out of the repertory, and Quintessence’s inconsistently acted production offers clues as to why. Without the surging music and passion, the drama quickly wilts.
Quintessence stages Camille as part of the Reclamation Repertory, alternating performances with Flyin’ West, a contemporary drama by Pearl Cleage about formerly enslaved settlers who establish an all-Black town in the aftermath of the Civil War. If the intention is to reconfigure the gaze of Dumas fils’s work—to imbue the figure of the doomed, consumptive courtesan with a newfound sense of agency—Steven Anthony Wright’s production largely misses the mark. There is little to suggest deviation from the familiar, tragic beats of the story.
No tears here
There is even less understanding of how a melodrama should be performed. To a person, the actors adopt a jarringly contemporary affect, eschewing the sense of rising emotion and looming heartbreak that defines the genre. Rarely does a scene reach the fever pitch it’s meant to, and without the wide sentimental swings, the viewer rarely feels connected to or moved by the action. Even the scene where Camille meets her inevitable end in the arms of a lover who previously spurned her feels surprisingly anticlimactic—it slips away without wrenching a single tear.
The physical production is typically stylish for Quintessence, with Brian Sidney Bembridge’s evocative lighting design the most memorable element. Anna Sorrentino’s costumes look handsome, if slightly too contemporary; Tom Carman’s intentionally anachronistic incidental music possesses a sense of wit absent elsewhere. I’d buy an album full of string adaptations of Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in a heartbeat.
The title heroine, who experiences love briefly before renouncing it, describes herself as a woman of the world, yet there is little that is worldly, mysterious, or alluring in Billie Wyatt’s performance. On the contrary, she seems perpetually childish, with a thin speaking voice and unaffected manner of delivery that lacks ardor or joie de vivre. She convinces neither as the good-time-girl of the stagnant first act or the sacrificial saint of the too-brief second. She generates little chemistry with Dax Richardson, an oddly passive presence as her true love, Armand Duval.
The other performances range from intriguing (Zuhairah “Z” McGill’s outsized, comic turn as Camille’s money-hungry neighbor) to embarrassing (Phillip Brown’s gruff, one-note take on Armand’s disapproving father). Maya Smoot supplies some much-needed charm as Camille’s sweet-natured friend Nichette, but rarely do any two actors give the sense that they’re appearing in the same play. The lack of a French diction coach is also sorely in evidence, as it’s not uncommon to hear the same word pronounced several different ways within a single scene.
The production lost a week of previews to Covid-19 cases within the cast, and the performance on opening night looked and felt like a rehearsal in many ways. While I’m sympathetic to the situation and admiring of the company’s pluck in returning to the stage as quickly as possible, it’s hard to imagine the final result improving, even under ideal circumstances. Camille is ultimately not a reclamation, a reinvention, or a particularly successful attempt to resurrect a bygone performance tradition. Unlike the title character’s prolonged demise, it dies on the vine.
What, When, Where
Camille. By Alexandre Dumas fils, translated by Matilda Heron; directed by Steven Anthony Wright. $15-$59. Through June 26, 2022, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
Proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours are required for attendance. Masks must be worn at all times inside the theater. Seating is not distanced.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Contact the box office at (215) 987-4450 or [email protected] to arrange for wheelchair-friendly seating and for info about open-captioned performances.
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