The Piazza San Marco, Venice's jewel-like colonnaded plaza, was glistening and buzzing with people. As actor Ron Campbell remembers it, there were something like 500.
As usual, he was doing his commedia dell'arte -inspired street performance act, stretching his body in about as many ways as his clownish pants. The Venice crowd, just like the Paris crowds Campbell had played to during the same vagabonding trip through Europe in 1981, roared with approval.
A little too much roaring, it seemed, for the competing act not too far away from Campbell's in the Piazza. This forlorn performer was losing his audience to Campbell, who was simply following the cardinal rule of street performance: Be sure that your act is more compelling than any other on the block.
"The performer and his buddies had gotten more and more drunk as the day went on," Campbell recalled recently, "and it looked like they wanted to kill me. When my act was over and the crowd dispersed, I could see them coming across the piazza toward me. So I had to start up the act again to have a crowd around me."
The performer and his henchmen were getting close, and Campbell had to think of something quickly.
"All of a sudden, one of these carriages that takes tourists on rides around the city came between me and the crowd. I jumped on the back of the carriage, waved goodby to the crowd. The other guys couldn't see me. I escaped, packed my bags and left for Rome with my girlfriend. I'll never have a better exit in my life."
Twelve years later, Campbell is finding himself handling another actor's struggle to escape with his hide intact.
It is that of fictional thespian Guy du Bonheur in Carol Wolf's one-character play, "Monsieur Shaherazad," which has its world premiere tonight at GroveShakespeare's Gem Theatre in Garden Grove. (In an unusual scheduling tactic for the Grove, it will play Friday and Saturday nights after performances of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" let out. For early risers, the Grove is offering 3 p.m. matinees on Saturdays.)
More accurately, Wolf's work is a 38-characters-in-one play, which depicts Bonheur putting on a show to persuade an audience of gendarmes during the Nazi occupation of France in 1943 that he's not a subversive, and doesn't deserve being put on a train to the Nazi death camps.
As Campbell learned all too well during his European adventures, Bonheur the actor knows that his only means of survival is his art.
Whether this means that Bonheur makes a Piazza San Marco-like escape, Campbell won't reveal. At the same time, sitting in the shady patio of a Glendale restaurant near the space where he, Wolf and director Jessica Kubzansky were rehearsing last week, Campbell was effusive about Wolf's dark comedy and how, as an actor, he has become "a transformation guy."
"To keep the French police entertained," he said, "Guy must keep coming up with new characters and variations. He tries to dazzle them with 38 characters in the Cafe Shaherazad," an actual wartime nightspot that Wolf discovered in her research.
The irony of the club's name and Bonheur's predicament extends, of course, from "The Arabian Nights," the tales told over 1,001 nights to the murderous Shahriah by his young wife, Shaherazad. As with all his previous wives, he assumes her to be unfaithful and condemns her to death. Shaherazad delays her execution by nightly telling a story but not telling the ending--until the next evening.
Bonheur, though, has no such luxury of time. "From the time Carol wrote it, and during the time we workshopped it twice at the Gem," Campbell said, "the play became a comedy with a gun to your head. The more he tries to disprove any subversive trait, the more he reveals it."
By way of example, Campbell stands up, and in the middle of the patio, assumes the rigid stance of a horse rider in the top half of his body, while his lower half moves like a strutting horse.
"This is how I, as Guy playing one of the thieves killed by Ali Baba in one of the 'Arabian Nights' tales, depict the thief on a horse. But as Guy relaxes into the role, he gets more flamboyant," and Campbell's strutting horse step turns into the Nazi goose-step. "His true nature comes out."
Campbell's true nature--a friendly, even-mannered chap who says he love his wife, his dog, the Wild West, swords and watch shops--is craftily hidden on stage, in a list of roles that provide a virtual clinic on the actor's craft. He works "from the outside in," as anyone who saw his tortured, monstrous Caliban in GroveShakespeare's "The Tempest" last year can attest.
Like Matthew Walker, who was Ariel in "The Tempest," Campbell came out of a Santa Monica High School drama training that drummed into his head that "you don't wait for the director to tell you something. Matt and I came to rehearsals in sweats and kneepads, ready for a workout."