"She's been ill again."
"I always look well when I'm near death."
"She's been laughing too much and she's spitting up blood."
"I'd rather die of gaiety than of boredom."
These lines demonstrate the schizophrenic spirit of "Camille." Should we laugh at the tall, gaunt Michael Kearns twirling in a petticoat and fluttering a fan? Or should we weep for a heroine sacrificing her life for a lover?
The ambitious revival at Highways of the late Charles Ludlam's self-defined "travesty" tries to have it both ways. Director Ron Edwards hopes we giggle at the kitsch behavior of an obviously masculine Marguerite Gautier. But he also wants our hearts to bleed. The result is archaic instead of anarchic, confused and lugubrious rather than tragi-comic, and depressingly sentimental.
When Ludlam adapted the Alexandre Dumas melodrama in the 1970s for his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the word AIDS did not exist. Although he always claimed there was much pain in his parody, Ludlam's "Camille" remained a camp burlesque celebrating gay liberation.
But now, the years of AIDS casualties (including Ludlam) shadow every hysterical line with a deadly double-entendre. To his credit, the publicly HIV-positive Kearns understands this. His doomed heroine is more Goya than Garbo. His makeup is pale, emphasizing the skull. By the third act--entirely devoted to the famous deathbed scene--Kearns' ghastly wig transforms him into a Daumier grotesque.
"I have lived for love, now I am dying of it," Kearns whispers in quivering Katharine Hepburn tones. It's a harrowing cry uttered by an actor giving the performance of his life.
The ensemble circles Kearns like salon lap dogs, begging for his attention. Daamen J. Krall is a formidable suitor, alternating between the pathetic and the heroic as he courts the indifferent Marguerite. Jacque Lynn Colton is the best friend with a heart of stone. Colin Martin portrays the true love with a passionate sincerity. And Brady Rubin is perfect as the dedicated maid.
But this is not enough to save "Camille." Despite inspired baroque sets by Robert W. Zentis--the deathbed resembles a Tim Burton sarcophagus, while snow falls against a blue-black night--and despite lush period costumes by John Patton, the spectacle burdens an already cumbersome plot with unnecessary set changes.
By treating the irreverent Ludlam with reverence, the Highways production neglects Ludlam's sublime clowning and restores the turgid melodrama of Dumas. We want to add an "amen" when the coughing Camille asks her maid, "Where are the days, Nadine, when we still laughed?"
* "Camille," Highways, 1651 18th St . , Santa Monica. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8:30 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 28. $12-$15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.