KPBS AIRDATE: JANUARY 11, 1999
Remember Scheherazade — who told 1001 stories to keep her husband, the legendary King of Samarkand, from killing her?…. Well, meet a more modern, male version… also trying to save his neck by telling tales.
It’s 1943. A train platform 50 miles east of Paris. Sabotage has crippled a transport bound for Buchenwald, and the prisoners aboard are forced to disembark and wait for their deportation. We hear offstage machine-gun fire, as the SS dispense with the wounded.
One Guy du Bonheur, actor and captive, attempting to stall for time and perhaps evade the inevitable, entertains his guards — with just the kind of allegedly subversive material he was arrested for. Walking a mighty thin line, he inserts a little politics into his divertissement. He portrays other members of his Compagnie de la Lampe Magique, of which he is the only remaining member, and enacts, in abbreviated form, bits of their entire repertoire. At the same time, he dramatizes tales from the “Arabian Nights,” flitting back and forth, with fear, sweat, humor, cynicism and the speed of light, among the intertwined impersonations and his own desperate situation. Each time a train approaches, he’s jolted out of the realm of fantasy and back into his horrific reality, and with neck-snapping speech, he jerks our emotions along with him.
Ron Campbell, an actor of amazing physical, facial and linguistic agility, plays 38 characters, from pregnant women and princesses to sultans and soldiers, generals to genies, inarticulate, droopy-tongued hunchbacks to the door-opening Ali Baba and, of course, the great storyteller, Scheherazade. It’s a tour de force performance — hilarious, and at the same time, harrowing.
The story is gut-wrenching, painful, frightening, explosive and also a stunning tribute to artistic talent, ingenuity and imagination in the face of insurmountable odds and unconquerable fear. It is a tale of hope against hope, in a hopeless time. The use of humor to stave off terror is reminiscent of the recent film, “Life is Beautiful.” As Jessica Kubzansky wrote in “The 1000th Night’s” director’s notes: “There are only two acceptable responses to that which is unbearable. And that is, laugh or crumble.”
Playwright Carol Wolf is accomplishing multiple goals here. First, she’s highlighting Campbell’s breathless array of talents — as a mimic and mime, pratfaller and puppeteer, an extraordinary physical comic who can wring pathos, belly-laughs or bawdy thoughts from any onlooker. But Wolf isn’t letting us off the hook; we’re placed into the role of the gendarmes who could save this man’s neck if we would only speak up. We feel exactly what it’s like to be indifferent and do nothing. We’re clearly a part of this production, as Campbell never forgets, with his pointed ad-libs about coughs and candy-wrappers. At the same time, the piece underscores the truly subversive potential of theater…. between the hilarity and histrionics, subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on the state-of-the-state can seep in… and poison the political well. There is a genius to this multi-level conceit, although, at just under two intermissionless hours, it might go on one fable too long, with one too many wise but shrewish wives and their wimpy, sniveling husbands.
Kubzansky’s direction keeps the pace frenetic but the production simple, backed by Marty Burnett’s stark, brick-and-metal set. All the attention is aptly focused on the wizardry of Campbell, whose de Bonheur pulls from his traveling trunk all he needs to jump into the skin of others, in an effort to save his own. Here’s an actor acting as if his life depends on it. And it does. As he fondles a bit of fabric or takes on the roles typically enacted by his fellow players, now all gone or deported, he is forced to confront his own complicity in their terrible fates. But not before he gets one last jab at the Germans, using an angry genie as his foil.
“The Thousandth Night” isn’t some fairy tale you just sit back and listen to; this one will grab you and shake you up.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.