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BWW Review: CAMELOT - The Impossibility of Utopia

Rooted in the myths of King Arthur and the Round Table, Camelot is a story in which the stereotypical debauch of a male-driven power structure is eschewed and a higher standard of civility (possibly one that is unreachable) is equated with the success of the human race. King Arthur decides to create a new order of chivalry: "might for right" as opposed to the current societal norm, "might is right," in which battle determines the victor in disputes. Arthur invites the knights of his kingdom and kingdoms beyond to take part in his social experiment of peaceful, impartial judgment that treats the lives of all subjects-from royalty to peasantry-as equally important. In the universe of Camelot, one "can never be wicked and happy. Triumphant, perhaps, but not happy." Implicit in this statement is the idea that triumph denotes some aspect of dominion, which Arthur is striving to eliminate with his new order of Knights. Camelot offers an existence of triumphs and consequences rather than happiness and misery, and the audience sees that power, even when applied in the most civilized way with the best of intentions, can never create utopic conditions. The human spirit is too flawed, too voracious and acquisitive to ever achieve true satisfaction.

Camelot is also a sweeping romance, a tale of the arduous emotional struggle associated with love found, lost, and reassigned. Arthur falls in love with and marries Guinevere, and finds a champion in Sir Lancelot. All is idyllic in Camelot for a time, but tranquility cannot perpetuate interminably, and the wheel of fortune turns on the young king. Guinevere and Lancelot fall in love despite their reverence for Arthur; a bastard son, Mordred, arrives in Camelot to fell the monarchy from within; and the knights revert to uncivilized conduct and power-lust. Arthur is aware of the desire that develops between Lancelot and Guinevere, and he magnanimously reminds himself that "they didn't ask for this calamity," while attempting to exercise a blind eye. Guinevere and Lancelot venerate Arthur, but their passion cannot be overlooked. All three suffer in strained denial despite the whispers of the court's healthy rumor mill.

When Guinevere and Lancelot's affair is discovered, the court convicts both of treason and sentences them to death. Lancelot escapes in a flurry of violence, but Guinevere is left to the stake. Arthur, in a devastated quandary as to whether or not to let his bride burn, is forced to make a choice: kill the queen or kill the law? The three main plot lines dovetail towards the play's conclusion, and Arthur takes his men to war against Lancelot: the knights are hungry for battle, demanding revenge rather than justice, and Arthur is truly disillusioned. The Round Table, a symbol of civility and equality, is splintered; Arthur's relationships are unsalvageable; and the era of Camelot as the most congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering is besmirched. Both sides of the battle are defeated before the war, which never plays out on stage, even begins.

And yet, there's a lingering redemption when Tom of Warwick (local actor Dillon Stave), a teenage peasant, ventures from the forest and proclaims to Arthur that he intends to fight for justice and civility alongside the knights. He's heard the stories of the glory of Camelot, and he yearns to be a part of that lauded mythology. Arthur recognizes the impending triumph of his vision at the end of a long road of suffering-a road that may last for generations. Young Tom represents the future of chivalry-"he's one of what we all are...less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea," Arthur says. "But some of the drops do sparkle!"

My expectation for Camelot's delivery of cogent social commentary is clear: Arthur's "might for right" proclamation represents societal evolution in a colossal leap, progress that exists by decree of a benevolent monarch rather than organic growth. Chivalry as a social order of knights is very much alive, but chivalry as a code of conduct, one of courtesy and gentility, is obligatory. Arthur may be king, but a natural tendency toward chaos, ambition, and avarice rules humanity beyond his influence, and the Knights of the Round Table will not be made to adhere to a structure that castrates their physical power. I like my Camelot to emphasis the unrecognized anguish of impotence and futility hidden in the responsibilities of the crown. Arthur can control men, but he can't control man-this is, admittedly, a rather nihilistic approach to a show otherwise known as beloved entertainment to several generations.

Not every production of Camelot is created for this purpose. Some productions, such as Theater League's recent version at the Granada (directed by Michael McFadden), are more traditional: a concert of best-loved songs performed in narrative sequence with emphasis on simple storytelling. Theater League's lively rendition of the Lerner and Loewe classic featured talented vocal performers and an attractive set, but the production lacked subtlety. Actors played to the audience rather than to each other, and the frequency of sword unsheathing and subsequent re-sheathing (with no discernable enemy in sight) removed a degree of realism, an element necessary to ground a show whose premise is based in enchanted historical mythology, from the production. Without a firm stance in emotional realism, the story loses potency. Adam Grabau played Arthur with a command over the character-his Arthur was boyish and exuberant, and deeply disturbed by the collapse of his chivalric order and the destruction of his marriage. However, Mary McNulty's Guinevere was more impetuous than manipulative, more immature than youthful, and this touch of brashness was not an ideal balance for Tim Rogan's rather deadpan delivery of Lancelot. As a result, the relationships didn't ring sincere enough to hold the weight placed on them within the story.

Guinevere is the only female role of substance in the entire show; her influence over both Arthur and Lancelot makes her the fulcrum in the balance of power between the two men. The more conviction this character exudes (in whatever form it emerges within the bounds of the director's vision and the actress's capabilities), the more effectively her betrayal of king and country plays. In a male-dominated show, Guinevere needs to navigate the testosterone with ease so as not to undercut the impact of her actions. McNulty's Guinevere was troublingly frivolous, and plausibility in her command over Arthur was questionable when played against Grabou's more nuanced performance.

An aspect that worked well within the framework of the production was Kasidy Devlin as a ruthless, ambitious Mordred. Hilariously sociopathic, Devlin charged through the second act and pushed the story to fruition at a more strident pace, which heightened the stakes. Devlin provided an energetic and satisfying foil, the triumph to Arthur's unattainable happiness.

Despite the lack of subtlety in the production, the cast was vocally talented, and Frederick Loewe's music was performed well by musicians and cast alike. Camelot is a fascinating legend; while many storytelling standards would require the love triangle to take backseat to the bastard son's treachery and the collapse of the empire, Camelot does not shy away from emphasizing the importance of love. Most people live lives that feature relatively ordinary accomplishments-nothing offers a higher level of significance in the average life than the emotional investment in interpersonal relationships. With this in mind, the story of Guinevere and Lancelot's passion for each other despite their maintained love for Arthur, the torment of all three characters' inabilities to fully realize reciprocation of feelings, is more relatable than Arthur's musings of an ideal system of justice across class and social lines or Mordred's ambition for control of an entire nation. I'm interested in the story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, but only when the stakes seem properly insurmountable due to the serious and grounded nature of the characters' personalities.

Theatre League's production of Camelot was fun, but not emotionally overwhelming. Camelot provides a good story, a story of triumph in lieu of happiness, but examples of this theme are only be as strong as the characters perpetuating the emotions behind them, which are only as strong as the actors performing those roles. Theater League's performance of Camelot lacked the nuance to fully explore the dire consequences associated with the false hope of the attainability of absolute ideals.

Upcoming Productions from Theatre League at the Granada:
theaterleague.com/santabarbara


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From This Author Maggie Yates