.Theater: comedy vs. drama

Two plays take a stab at humor

By Charles Brousse

The people who bring you live theater will tell you that comedy is more difficult than drama to pull off successfully. At first glance, that may seem counterintuitive because the former’s production rules are deceptively simple: Start with a good script, keep it moving, milk the material for all it’s worth—but don’t make it appear that you’re desperate for laughs (even if you are), have fun while you’re on stage (it’s contagious) and send audiences out the door smiling. Contrary to drama, no emotional involvement on either side of the footlights is sought, or required.

All of this would seem to suggest that comedy is the easier path. A pair of current productions—one here in Marin, the other across the Bay in Berkeley—illustrate why that conclusion is open to question.

The Ladies of the Camellias (Ross Valley Players)

Although the chances of it ever occurring are next to none, author Lillian Groag imagines an 1897 backstage meeting at the Theatre de la Renaissance (Paris) between the two actresses who ruled late 19th century European theater—the flamboyant French diva Sarah Bernhardt (Michele Wolpe) and the more earthy Italian, Eleonora Duse (Adrianna Dinihanian)—as they prepared to alternate as Marguerite Gautier, the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas, Fils’ hyper-sentimental melodrama, La Dame aux camélias. Given that they both were renowned for their very different interpretations of the role and fierce competitiveness, it might be expected that such a situation would provide rich opportunities for comic sparks to fly. Who gets the best dressing room? Costumes? Leading men? Whose approach is artistically superior? Who has the most devoted followers? Who snuggles with the author? The list is long and enticing.

Nothing like that happens. Except for a few lively exchanges early in the play, Groag skims over these issues, citing only a mild dispute about whether white camellias (Bernhardt) or red roses (Duse) should dominate backstage décor. Instead, the focus shifts abruptly to a scraggly young Russian radical named Ivan (Mohammad Shehata), who bursts in carrying a pistol in one hand and several sticks of dynamite in the other. At first, his purpose seems to be to use his hostages to secure the release of comrades being held as political prisoners, but this quickly morphs into a series of repetitious diatribes (delivered in full voice) against European theater as a conservative bourgeois art form that serves the rich and resists the revolutionary socio-psychological advances being promoted by Konstantin Stanislavsky in Moscow.

Not much to laugh about here. Deprived of comic fuel and shackled by some ill-advised attempts at dialect–inflected speech, several actors among director Julian Lopez-Morillas’ mostly capable cast try to compensate with over-broad performances. It almost never works.

The Monster-Builder (Aurora Theatre Company)

Written by San Francisco playwright Amy Freed, whose reputation rests on quirky comedies that involve historical characters (The Beard of Avon, et.al.), this new work has many of the same problems that were noted above in regard to The Ladies of the Camellias. Punning on Henrik Ibsen’s famous drama, The Master Builder, Freed makes scattered attempts to mine humor out of a story about an architect/developer named Gregor (Danny Scheie), whose charismatic personality and evident genius wins contracts and draws clients and gullible acolytes into his orbit, despite the fact that he is egotistical, amoral, manipulative and cruel.

Mostly, though, the play is a framework for the author to vent her musings about the parlous state of contemporary architecture—not a promising source for humor. Aware of this, Scheie increasingly broadens his portrayal (with diminishing effect) until his Gregor becomes the tiresome cartoon monster of the title. Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck are effective as a young couple who become entangled in his web. Art Manke directs.

NOW PLAYING: The Ladies of the Camellias runs through December 20 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rosssvalleyplayers.com. The Monster-Builder runs through December 13 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley; 510/843-4822; auroratheatre.org.


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