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There is an old Jewish saying: God loves a good story.
If true, then God had to love Guy de Bonheur, whose name, loosely translated, would be
Lucky Guy. Unfortunately, in Carol Wolfs The Thousandth Night,
Guys luck has run out.
The intrepid and multi-talented Ron Campbell (R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe) plays a small time French actor in Nazi-occupied Paris. He has been arrested, not because he is Jewish, or a Communist, or a member of the Resistance, but because the fables he performs at the Cafe Scheherazade are considered subversive. Crowded into a train headed for Buchenwald, he gets one last chance at freedom when the track is blown up by saboteurs. Sneaking out in the chaos, he takes shelter in the station, where it is warm. It also is filled with French soldiers of the collaborative Vichy regime.
Pleading his innocence, he begins pulling costumes and props out of his trunk and spinning tales to pass the time. The tales are the same as his small acting company, now decimated by deportations, had performed at the cafe. Just a harmless amusement, you see. Not subversive at all. It is the performance of his lifetime and the stakes are life itself. And thereby hangs Wolfs tale.
This is a one-man show, populated by nearly forty different characters. Campbell is a superb clown, switching, with the positioning of a pillow, from a bosomy wife to her paunchy husband. A veil turns him into a Sultana and he puffs himself up to become a genie with a booming voice. If not a force of nature, he certainly is a force of the stage. A well-known Bay Area actress, leaving the theater, was heard to mutter, That boy is an acting machine!
The audience too is part of the show; the intimate Aurora space is a perfect venue for this kind of interaction, a breaking down of the fourth wall. Campbell asks questions, sits down next to people, tosses a pillow into a womans lap. But, when he begs his listeners to save him, to attest to his innocence, the audience (and, by extension, the French soldiers) is struck dumb. It is only a show after all. It is so easy to be silent, he says ruefully. It is so easy to be afraid. And, suddenly, this is more than an entertainment. Suddenly, we are ashamed.
Guy de Bonheur slips some sad truths into his funny stories. The introduction of a baker leads to a mention of the rationing of bread. The Sultans executioner casts a shadow not unlike an officer of the SS. As the night goes on, more and more reality creeps in. He hints at his devotion to the pretty ingenue, Lisette, and his jealousy of the leading man, Etienne, who is her lover. (His imitation of Etienne as a bad actor may well be the funniest thing in the show). As he tells a story about a lovely maiden abducted by brigands, we learn that Lisette has been picked up by the Gestapo and beaten until her beauty is only a memory. Perhaps these tales are subversive after all.
Wolf wrote this play for Campbell, who has performed it on and off for the past twelve years, most notably at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and again in London. Aurora director Jessica Kubzansky was his original director and she paces things beautifully. The laughs keep coming and, if there are tears underneath, they never surface in a way that is maudlin. Richard Olmsteds spiffy French train station interior, Chris Houstons sound and Jon Retskys lights add much, as the coming and going of those dread engines of death pass by outside, interrupting the delight of the tales with the reality of doom. It is a most unusual take on the Nazi Holocaust, delivered by a most unusual performer. Scheherazade herself couldnt have done a better job.
Berkeley, CA, June 25, 2005 - Suzanne Weiss