“Monsieurs, pardon me; if I may have a word with an officer in charge? There’s been a mistake.”
In the dim nighttime interior of a grimy station somewhere in Occupied France, transom windows behind arches and pillars throb with a dull orange glare as a great clangor announces the arrival of a train coming to a grinding halt. Blowing in through the doors is a lone figure, fantastic and harried, lugging a steamer trunk and frantically talking a mile a minute: demanding, cajoling, begging assistance and sympathy from silent German officers presumably hidden in the shadows.
He introduces himself: Guy de Bonheur, clearly the name of a happy guy, itinerant actor wandering apart from a troupe disbanded by arrests and deportations. And he protests that if he can only show his wares—which he immediately begins to do—they’ll see he’s harmless to the Reich: no subversive, merely an entertainer.
Ron Campbell’s entrance onto the “deep thrust space,” as Artistic Director Tom Ross describes the Aurora Theatre’s stage is a frantic prologue to the play (by Bay Area playwright and teacher Carol Wolf.) The Thousandth Night is a confabulation of tales from The Arabian Nights acted out by an unwilling (and seemingly random) victim of power, caught in a net and fantasizing to amuse his apparently indifferent captors, to assuage his own anxiety and to kill time as he awaits pronouncement of his fate.
At first, Bonheur’s tales appear to be escapist, taking his audience out of wartime Europe “beyond Cairo, beyond Aleppo” to a place where a guest might be invited to dine on fish, because Baghdad is a city “where fish aren’t rationed.” He tells the story of the death of the Sultan’s favorite dwarf and how his body is passed along stealthily from one unwary citizen to the next. Each assumes himself guilty of murder, and finally all confess to the Sultan, who pardons all because his beloved dwarf has proven to be as hilarious a joker in death as in life. And he tells of Scheherazade, who escapes execution the morning after the wedding night with the Sultan by keeping him up with an endless string of tales, and of Ali Baba and his victory over the 40 armed and vengeful thieves who seek his life for discovering their secret.
Ron Campbell acts out the full roster of characters, with flourishes, asides, even the recitation of a cafe chanson (an old recording of Piaf opens and closes the performance). At moments, his timing seems like he’s trying out gags on his audience, gauging their response and milking it. As promised by Tom Ross in his notes, Campbell engages the spectators directly, with mixed results. Some laugh hysterically, some are alert if deadpan, a few (as in any theater) doze. But that doesn’t deter this self-described cross between Marcel Marceau and Robin Williams. He is constantly talking, interrupting himself in agitation to make a maudlin aside or plea, relentlessly mugging a new character and providing sound effects. Actor Campbell’s drive to always be “on” merges with character (and actor) Bonheur’s desperate determination to escape notice by being the center of attention.
This close collaboration between a performer and his character, in which they seem to be almost joined at the hip, is successful—in flashes. Campbell (best-known here for his solos Buckminster Fuller and The Bone Man of Benares) puts a lot of juice into single-handedly engaging his audience, whether of shadowy Nazis or palpable Berkeleyites. His zest for caricature and pantomime is unending—but the long string of cartoonish characters are Disneyish, in the sense that movie sound effects and music that merely illustrated the obvious used to be dismissed as too “Disney.” At some moments, there’s a boyish, prankish charm to the doubled-up showmanship; at others, the tone is strident or cloying.
Just as the line is blurry between the performer and the performer he’s playing, it’s hard to tell which effects are written into the play itself and which are the interpretations of actor and director. It’s an interesting premise, with interesting set-up and hook, but sometimes the reality, the necessity of setting and situation, the relation between what we see performed and why, gets stretched, becomes abstruse, too conceptual.
Where actor and director could collaborate more would be on the dynamics. Campbell talks a blue streak, much of it at the same pitch. Racing from the desperate to the bawdy to the silly and back over and over the changes eventually sounds just one note—a silly one. Crowded together and coming out in a rush from one speaker—albeit a rubber-faced multiple personality—the various emotional tacks sometimes devolve to mere exposition. Bonheur is trying to justify himself before an ultra-Kafkaesque court (and in an extraordinary moment, though thrown away, he appeals to the audience to judge him) but the running patter of justification and commentary gets a bit too tangled with the storytelling, instead of embellishing or shading it.
The final story overcomes some of these problems. It’s about a fisherman asked to choose the manner of his death by the malign genie he’s freed from a long-sunken bottle (depicted by a canteen). Campbell artfully plays the whole stage. He is atop the upended trunk he’s worked out of with the supernally booming voice of the genie. Then he’s down on the grimy wood of the station floor where the humble fisherman cowers. The dark lining of the escapist stories, with their beheadings and banishments, now envelopes the stage as a primal confrontation between the seemingly powerless and the capriciously all-powerful. Its effect is immediate. Somehow it strengthens Bonheur’s character. He’s aimed to please; maybe he can die well.
Design (and timing of execution) of the set (Richard Olmstead), lighting (Jon Retsky) and sound (Chris Houston) is impressive and wonderful. Inside a multifaceted situation which a single performer must express, Ron Campbell camps it up, kicks up his heels in one transparent disguise after another, and (like his Sultan who’s just beheaded last night’s bride and calls “Get me another queen!”) keeps asking for more. But in a show poised somewhere between the performer and the ensemble he impersonates, there are too many slips between these two stools.
The Thousandth Night shows at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through July 24. $36. Aurora Theater, 2081 Addison St. 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org. 3