Review: The Story is Tragic But the Atmosphere is Wonderful in Shakespeare Downtown’s “The Lady of the Camellias”

The Lady of the Camellias

Written by Alexandre Dumas fils; new adaptation by Billie Andersson

Directed by Geoffrey Horne

Presented by Shakespeare Downtown at Castle Clinton National Monument

The Battery (Battery Park), Manhattan, NYC

June 15 - June 25, 2023

Billie Andersson. Photo by Amy Goosens
The tragically fated love of the consumptive courtesan Marguerite Gautier (Billie Andersson) and the young bourgeois Armand Duval (Zack Ignoffo) takes center stage amid the bucolic setting of the open-air Castle Clinton in the Battery in Shakespeare Downtown’s free production of The Lady of the Camellias. Combining dialogue from Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel with text from the libretto of La Traviata, the new adaptation chronicles the brief but intense love story of Marguerite and Armand, doomed from the start by Marguerite’s illness and then later on by Armand’s father.

While the believability of the lovers’ relationship is occasionally hampered by overly long speeches that seem designed more to convey information than feeling, Andersson captures Marguerite’s savvy and wordliness while Ignoffo embodies Armand’s youthful naivete, even awkwardness, in the face of this great passion. Marguerite’s costumes symbolize her state throughout, even beyond the eponymous camellia. Her somber black attire while she and Armand are living together in the countryside reminds the audience that this happy interlude will be all too brief, that it is shadowed by Marguerite’s illness and debts. She acquires a veil once she has returned to Paris with the Baron, as though in mourning for her true love. And finally, her pale lilac robes in the play’s final scene, in which she dies in her lover’s arms, signify the lovers’ final reunion and the peace Marguerite will find after death.

The lovers’ story is enhanced by the winning performances of the supporting cast, in particular Gaston (Evan Olson), Prudence (Chantal van Zyl), and Nanine (Sanna Izmirlian). They not only create the freewheeling party atmosphere of Paris but also the somber mourning surrounding Marguerite’s illness and death. But the open-air Castle Clinton setting is perhaps the true star of the show, the chirping birds especially apropos while the play is set in the country. The other ambient noises from helicopters and ferryboats are occasionally perfectly timed, such as a foghorn sounding loudly during Marguerite and Armand’s first passionate kiss. Even when such noises can only serve to take the audience outside of the play’s time and place, however, they serve as a potent (if occasionally comic) reminder that tragedy occurs during quotidian and mundane moments—even that of summer in New York City.

-Stephanie Pietros

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