Adam Berry and Brian Fitzgerald in Camille(© Kevin Hardy)
Adam Berry and Brian Fitzgerald in Camille
(© Kevin Hardy)
For about 20 years, beginning in the mid 1960s, Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company presented a series of madcap entertainments, first on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and then in the heart of Greenwich Village. The troupe's second home in Sheridan Square was just steps away from the Stonewall bar, site of the 1969 riots that gave birth to the modern gay rights movement. This was the perfect location for Ludlam's "low-culture, anarchic, psychosexual" drag shows, of which I was lucky enough to see three: Galas, a twisted bioplay about Maria Callas; Der Ring Gott Farblonjet, a spoof of Richard Wagner's epic Ring Cycle; and The Mystery of Irma Vep, a send-up of gothic mysteries and vampire tales that is regarded as one of the Ridiculous troupe's finest achievements.

In an incalculable loss to the theater, Ludlam died from complications of AIDS in 1987, at the age of 44. His plays are not frequently revived, probably because they were largely showcases for his unique talents and they call for a campy style of performance, direction, and design that can seem truly ridiculous -- in the worst sense of that word -- if poorly done. So the New Provincetown Players deserve a gold star for programming Camille, Ludlam's takeoff on the famed novel by Alexandre Dumas fils (and the Greta Garbo film of the same title, and the immortal Verdi opera La Traviata). Though uneven, the production has much to recommend it. And frankly, even if it were far more problematic than it is, it would be worth seeing if only for historical reasons.

Ludlam usually played the female lead in his shows, and he was sure to provide himself with roles that require tour-de-force acting in the tricky Ridiculous style. So you can imagine how my heart sank when I read the program bio for Brian Fitzgerald, the Provincetown company's Marguerite/Camille, and learned that he only "recently moved onstage from his usual position behind the scenes" as assistant to producing artistic director Guy Wolf. But guess what? Fitzgerald acquitted himself quite well, displaying an innate sense of comic timing and refusing to go over the top in his characterization of the consumptive courtesan. (Is there anything more obnoxious than an overacting drag queen? I think not!) True, there were several moments when Fitzgerald seemed to zone out, and he delivered some of his lines so hurriedly that he stumbled over them. Still, his performance is good enough to indicate that he has the potential to become an excellent actor if he works at it.

Happily, Fitzgerald is well supported by the thoroughly professional actors who play the other two major roles in the show. Adam Berry, who has shone brightly in Provincetown productions of Hair and Bat Boy, is ardent, warm, and ultimately heartbreaking as Marguerite's lover Armand, while Terrence Keene is very strong as the callow young man's rigid father. (Keene also does a fine job of doubling as the villainous Baron DeVarville, complete with a Dracula-like accent.) For what it's worth, let it be noted that Berry and Keene are the only two members of the cast to have asterisks designating members in Actors' Equity Association following their names in the program.

Among the standouts in the ensemble are Karen Maloney as Marguerite's ancient butler, Susan Grill as her loyal maid, Jeremy Dowdy as a molasses-mouthed Nichette ("Ah really must be goin' "), and Eric Fallen, looking for all the world like a Bronx plumber in drag as Olympe. Some of the other cast members' work is less satisfactory, but not to the point where they really harm the production as a whole.

Professionalism is also the hallmark of Kevin Hardy's scenic and lighting design -- love that backdrop for the country house scene, complete with cows! -- and of Carol Sherry's wig and costume design, with one glaring exception. In the scene set during a party at Olympe's house in Paris, the hostess becomes hysterical when Marguerite shows up in a dress nearly identical to her own. In this case, however, the two get-ups looked almost nothing alike. (If the show's budget didn't allow for a real duplication, why weren't the lines cut?) Adding greatly to the atmosphere of the production is a wealth of original music written and played beautifully on piano by John Thomas; I didn't catch any quotations of tunes from Traviata, but I loved it anyway. Director Guy Wolf might have paid a bit more attention to fine-tuning the show's pacing but, otherwise, he does a fine job of guiding the cast.

Provincetown is recognized by many as the birthplace of the modern American theater, having served as a refuge for such icons as Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. More recently, theatrical activity here has been spotty -- and the landscape keeps shifting. Indeed, the New Provincetown Players is billed as "a company born from three distinct organizations, The Provincetown Theater Foundation (PTF), Provincetown Theatre Company (PTC), and Provincetown Repertory Theatre (REP)." Here's hoping that some degree of longterm stability will be achieved, allowing the talented folk who live in P-town year round or just in the summer to do the best work they possibly can.