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THEATER REVIEWS : A Freewheeling Ride on Borrowed Time : 'Monsieur Shaherazad' juxtaposes frothy Arabian tales on a mini-drama of an innocent caught up in the evil of the Nazi regime.


GARDEN GROVE — Guy du Bonheur almost pulls it off. It's 1943, and sabotaged tracks outside Paris have halted the train that was carrying him and other prisoners of the Third Reich to Germany. He is an actor. To play for time, he entertains his guards with the allegedly subversive material for which he was arrested. The stories, after all, are from "The Arabian Nights," and even Herr Hauptman of the SS says his arrest was a mistake.

Ron Campbell, who plays Du Bonheur and more than three dozen other characters, succeeds with great aplomb in pulling the whole thing off, in Carol Wolf's "Monsieur Shaherazad" at the Gem Theatre.

Campbell, desperately ingratiating as the trapped Du Bonheur, also becomes other members of Companie de la Lampe Magique, of which he is the only remaining performer. He also portrays an immense array of characters from the "Arabian Nights" stories, from Ali Baba to Shaherazad, sultans, slaves, soldiers, bakers, tongue-waggling hunchbacks, pregnant wives and more.

The cleverness of Wolf's script is its solid base in the mini-drama of an innocent caught up in the evil of the Nazi regime, juxtaposed with the frothy Arabian tales and their inherent sense of fun. It is the clash of opposites that gives the piece its style, its power, its laughs and eventually, its heartbreaking poignancy.

"Monsieur Shaherazad" would not be possible without an actor of Campbell's particular talents to perform it. Under the energetic, lucid direction of Jessica Kubzansky, Campbell freewheels through the tales, often interrupted by the roar of departing trains (in Don Peterson Jr.'s fine sound design) as he begins yet another story, another attempt to forestall the inevitable.

Campbell's physical humor is delicious, as he flashes from one character to another: the posture of a grand vizier collapses into the crumpled form of a hunchback, the heaving bosom of a belly dancer becomes, with a shimmy, the swollen form of Ali Baba's pregnant wife.

He keeps a kaleidoscope of voices in logical order, and at all times, his clear definition as an actor playing an actor playing a character is uncanny.

When he is not distracting Du Bonheur's French guards--when he is just Du Bonheur, a frightened animal at bay, a difficult transition he frequently makes--Campbell has some additional tricks up his sleeve: We, as the audience, are the guards Du Bonheur entertains, and Campbell makes it easy to feel a sense of guilt because we do not speak up for him to Herr Hauptman.

He also takes us by the hand and lifts us up to Du Bonheur's level of pride as he unfolds his final story, about an angry genie with a power complex who thinks he is the super being, finally admitting that, yes, perhaps some of his material might be a little subversive.

"Monsieur Shaherazad" is an unusual piece of writing, with its flashes of ribald humor and its moments of bitterness, but at the end its total effect is astonishing. But no more astonishing than the color and detail that Campbell brings to its performance.

"Monsieur Shaherazad," Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Fridays-Saturdays, 10:30 p.m., Saturday matinees, 3 p.m. Ends May 15. $12. (714) 636-7213. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Ron Campbell: Guy du Bonheur

A Grove Shakespeare production. Play by Carol Wolf. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Set design: Steve Mitchell. Lighting design: Ben Tusher. Costume design: Scott Johnson. Sound design: Don Peterson, Jr.

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