Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Ladies of the Camellias
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of The Kid Thing, In Love and Warcraft, and The Monster-Builder, Eddie's reviews of Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce and Mother's Milk: A Blues Riff in Three Acts, and Patrick's review of Disgraced

Michele Wolpe and Mohammed Shehata
Photo bu Robin Jackson
As director Julian Lopez-Morillas stated in a message delivered at the opening of Ross Valley Players' The Ladies of the Camellias, it would be hard to imagine a more difficult time to put on Lillian Groag's 1996 comedy about a fictional meeting of two of the early 20th century's most luminous (and temperamental) stars of the stage, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. You see, the play takes place in a theater in Paris, where—midway through act one—a wild-eyed man brandishing a gun and carrying a bomb takes the occupants hostage, threatening to kill them all and blow up the theater if his demands are not met. Okay—who's ready for a comedy? (crickets)

But, the show must go on, and though I'm certain it must have been an agonizing week for the cast and crew, houselights went down and the show indeed went on. I only wish the quality of the show matched the level of courage and commitment of the people who put it on.

Though the play itself is far too long, hammering its agenda into the audience like a fully automatic nail gun, the themes explored offer fertile comic ground: the perils of egocentrism; the appeal of escapism; and its complement, the danger of disengagement from reality. Add to that the TMZ-like guilty pleasure of watching two divas square off in a celebrity grudge match and the stage is set for some terrific fun—despite the anarchist lurking offstage. Unfortunately, most of that comic potential remains offstage, as well.

The cast, while energetic and sincere, never find the comic rhythm the play requires. As the play begins, both Bernhardt and Duse are occupying the same theater, playing the same role (Marguerite, in Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias) in different productions on alternating nights. Knowing he has two gigantic egos on his hands, Dumas (played with vigor by Geoffrey Colton) does all he can to keep the two separated.

As Sarah Bernhardt, Michele Wolpe has the right idea, playing the famed actress as a larger-than-life perfectionist. Her take on Marguerite is a sunny, upbeat one, and Dumas tries to convince her that in the last act, when Marguerite is dying of consumption, she could, perhaps, seem a little less cheery in the face of her fate. Eleonora Duse (Adrianna Dinihanian), on the other hand, brings a much darker take on Dumas' tragic heroine. (What's more, though Duse was a famed Italian actress, Dinihanian's accent makes her seem more Romanov than Romano. In truth, the entire cast would benefit from a dialect coach, as their accents tend to wander from country to country.) Because of Duse's dour approach to the role, Dumas must take an opposite tack, persuading her that in the first act, when all is happiness for Marguerite, that she should—perhaps—be a little less depressed.

But before any of this can happen, our gun and bomb-wielding anarchist (Mohammed Shehata) comes screaming onto the stage, throwing everything into chaos. Ivan, as he calls himself, professes a hatred of the theater. He despises the fantasy of it all. Art, he says, is "entirely useless," and he tells the actors "you traffic in lies!" His revolution is a more practical one.

But not to worry, this is still a comedy, and by the end of the play, the wounds are all of the flesh variety (as well as a few blows to egos), and no one is dead. However, some lovely—and timely—wisdom is dispensed when Duse tells Ivan the anarchist that "no idea backed up by death is a good idea" and Bernhardt opines "civilization changes the world, not bombs."

The Ladies of the Camellias plays Thursdays-Sundays through December 20, 2015, at the Barn Theatre, located in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $29 general admission, $25 for seniors (62+) and $14 for children under 18 and students with valid high school or college ID. Thursday night tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for children and students with valid ID. No evening performance on Thursday, November 26. There will be an additional matinee on Saturday, December 12. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting

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