KPBS AIRDATE: November 21, 1991
I don’t know if this is a far, far better thing than Ron Campbell has ever done, but I’m sure it’s far, far more characters than he’s ever played at one time. Almost twenty, to be sort of precise. And if the evening were a little shorter, it’d definitely be the best of times in the theater.
Things don’t exactly drag, though — pardon the pun — the main character IS a drag queen. Campbell is a whirlwind of activity, using every conceivable prop on the cluttered stage to turn himself into every character you do and don’t remember from the Dickens classic. It would be a perfect one-act. Two acts and two-plus hours are too much for all of us. Campbell really works up a sweat, and at least a few times on opening night, he seemed to be working. But this is a ten-ton role, and he’ll probably shoulder it with greater ease as the run proceeds.
He starts out as this frazzled, frenetic drag-singer named Jerry, who’s getting ready to make his big club debut.
Just as he’s racing around, deciding which of his 25 wigs to wear, the doorbell rings and, outside his apartment, on the threshold, someone has left a basket of…. baby. A squealing, squalling infant has been abandoned on his doorstep. He tries to quiet it down with diet Coke, with vain attempts at the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, all the usual suspects. Screams magically continue to emerge from the baby’s basket.
Then, with some amazingly unbelievable writing sleight of hand, Jerry latches onto the story of the French Revolution (the baby seems to respond to le francais. It even gurgles “Ooh la la”). And Campbell’s off. On a boisterous romp through London, Paris, and the Bastille, ending up, of course, losing his head.
He’s a mincing Lucy Manette, a bumbling Gaspard, a prissy Miss Pross, a fright-wigged Dr. Manette and a sinister Madame Defarge, using turkey basters as knitting needles. He wears baskets as bustles. He takes a bubble bath. He prances and pratfalls and effects the wildest assortment of voices and faces. The baby coos and gurgles and bites his hand. The baby gets old, so to speak, with its French responses and knife-wielding menace.
But Campbell stays pretty fresh. He milks every moment, and there’s enough slapshtick to choke a cow. We get the full comic range — from dirty diaper gags to somewhat subtle political commentary. (Don’t even ask what he finds on the Coke can).
This is the one-man tour de force that garnered actor-playwright Everett Quinton an Obie Award for his 1989 presentation at New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. It’s Campbell’s first crack at the piece, and he certainly gets at least to third base.
Director Sam Woodhouse keeps him hopping, but it really did seem unnecessary to have him go through his whole drag show at the end, lip-synching Diana Ross. I mean, the fun was in watching him get into costume and makeup. We could imagine the rest.
But what’s almost unimaginable is Campbell’s versatility, malleability and hilarious asides to the audience. He’s a delight to watch. But less — at least time-wise, would be more.
This show is a great review of a classic. Cliff Notes meets the Marx Brothers. It’s wacko and crazy, but who believes in a sanity clause, anyway?
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.