While rehearsing for Camille, A.J. Allegra, artistic director of The NOLA Project, finds himself on the receiving end of an intimate bit of physical comedy. He plays the title character, the elegant Marguerite Gautier, The Lady of the Camellias, who entertains Duval Sr. (Jason Kirkpatrick). A solicited kiss turns into a barrage from Duval, and a visibly flushed Allegra holds up a hand and cries "That's enough!" The ad-libbed line cracks up the entire cast, and director Jeffery Roberson decides to keep the line, at least for now.
Camille relies on these moments of slapstick and visual comedy to inject humor into the 19th-century play La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, son of the French novelist of the same name. There have been numerous adaptations, including Verdi's opera La Traviata and the Greta Garbo film Camille, but this comedy is Charles Ludlam's version. Founder of the Ridculous Theatrical Company and a fixture of New York City's theater scene in the 1970s, Ludlam played the title role in drag when it premiered.
"Camille is very absurd, but it's also very tragic," Roberson says. "It's a matter of blending the two. That's the challenge of the whole piece, to let people laugh hysterically but hopefully really feel for the character in the end."
Roberson is better known as Varla Jean Merman, his internationally acclaimed drag persona. He says most drag comedies rely on rapid-fire jokes and not-so-subtle double entendres, but Camille plays it straight, at least on the page. The script doesn't deviate far from Dumas' original story of a Parisian socialite dying of consumption, compelled to choose between her beloved Armand Duval (Sam Dudley), a young man of modest means, and the affluent but detestable Baron de Varville (Ricky Graham). It's a tale of love and loss, but under Roberson's direction, the actors, most of them in drag, ramp up the melodrama to skewer the conventions of polite society and highlight the ridiculousness of romantic relationships.
In one scene, Armand's father entreats Marguerite to abandon his son in order to save the family's reputation, asking her to sacrifice true love and confront her inevitable death. The scene is peppered with sight gags and slapstick, but the emotion is real.
"There are moments of absolute hysterics, just ridiculous comedy, but the scene itself is heart-wrenchingly serious," Allegra says. "I think that anyone who has been touched by heartbreak — and who hasn't? — can see the power of what Marguerite has to do, and how she has so much strength to do it."
It's another production involving Roberson and Graham, who recently produced the parody Gone With the Breaking Wind at Mid-City Theatre and starred in that as Harlot O'Hairnet and Ashy Heels, respectively.
"Comedy requires precision," Allegra says, "and those guys know it better than anyone in the city."
Likewise, Roberson says he's excited about The NOLA Project's willingness to embrace unconventional staging, as in its recent production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will in the Great Hall of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
"They have a great staff of wonderfully creative people that work with The NOLA Project," Roberson says. "It's refreshing, because when I produce shows with [Graham], we are responsible for everything."
For Camille, Roberson worked with NOLA Project scenic designer Jean Long to create a largely two-dimensional set that reflects the superficial society of the play. Props and set pieces — a tray of coffee cups, for example — are flat and illustrated, "kind of like a pop-up book," Roberson says. As the play progresses and Marguerite discards the false objects that clutter her life, the two-dimensional pieces give way to things that are real.
Camille is The NOLA Project's first foray into drag comedy, beyond its use in comedies such Twelfth Night. Allegra also calls the show "a celebration of gay theater" and a return to issues of queerness that company first addressed in its 2006 production of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine.
The company also has a history with the show. Before moving to New Orleans and establishing The NOLA Project, four company members appeared in a production of Camille as students at New York University, and three of them, including Allegra, Dudley and Kristin Witterschein, are reprising their roles in the current production.
"The play holds such fond memories for us," Allegra says. "We had such a great time doing it as college students, and it's always been on our wish list to attack the show again. And you look at the popularity of Ricky Graham and Varla Jean Merman, and you know that drag comedy has really strong roots here, so I think it's a great show for New Orleans."