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Review: Camille 

With a Charles Ludlam script and Varla Jean Merman directing, this NOLA Project comedy is anything but a drag

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Though she has a hacking cough and faces crushing debt, the glamorous Marguerite Gautier hosts a dinner party for friends. Among her guests are a flamboyant milliner, a craggy old man and the sketchy-but-rich Baron de Varville. Everyone is having a wonderful time until Marguerite faints and and then coughs up blood.

  In The NOLA Project's Camille at Mid-City Theatre, A.J. Allegra plays Marguerite, who prefers jewels over affection. Dressed in a strawberry blond wig and a wardrobe of elaborate dresses, Allegra shines with an over-the-top treatment of the Parisian courtesan. Marguerite always wants to be the center of attention, and she's a quick wit who never misses a chance to turn a sly phrase into a come-on. With a raised eyebrow, Allegra turns the slightest jokes into big laughs.

  Following Charles Ludlam's script and vision of the classic story, many cast members perform in drag. All of Marguerite's women friends are played by men. In beard and bushy eyebrows, Kristin Witterschein plays humpbacked Saint Gaudens, a crusty but sweet man who pursues the flamboyant Olympe de Taverne (Sean Patterson) — and the two are hilarious together. There's also the ever-present housekeeper Nanine (Michael P. Sullivan), who as Marguerite's confidant has some of the funniest quiet moments while shuffling in and out of scenes to set tables and clear dishes.

  Designed by Jaime Bird, props such as plants, silverware and food are stylized but cartoonish flat cardboard pieces. Actors drink from oversized cut-out wine glasses. The show's humor plays to innuendo and vulgar inflections, and sex jokes fly fast and loose. But director Jeffery Roberson (aka Varla Jean Merman) also allows the tone to change, slowing down to allow for dramatic depth.

  As her health declines, Marguerite's friends leave her. Only Armand (Sam Dudley) stays, because he is in love with her. Although Armand is young and handsome, he's also poor. Marguerite's reluctant choice of suitor initially was the lip-licking Baron de Varville (Ricky Graham), who can afford her expensive lifestyle. But the Baron is creepy. Graham does a funny but offbeat routine in which he dons a scout uniform and asks Marguerite to spank him.

  As Marguerite struggles to choose between suitors, Armand's father (Jason Kirkpatrick) arrives and condemns her "unladylike" ways. Marguerite sees her predicament in a new light, and it's a grounding moment that makes the story more heartfelt and sincere. There's a tender side beneath Marguerite's makeup and quips. While Camille packs plenty of laughs, the emotional ending is surprising and sweet, capping a memorable production.

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