Dark Knights

By Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
New Line Theatre

King Arthur had a big idea. He would channel his knights' love of violence into a positive outlet. Instead of "Might makes right," he would make their motto "Might for the right." For a while -- for one brief shining moment -- it worked. Then the ideal fell afoul of the reality that baser instincts stayed alive in Arthur's knights, Arthur's wife and Arthur himself.

Scott Miller also had a big idea. His New Line Theatre would present the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot in a way that emphasizes these darker elements in the story. The production would be small in scale, so the story wasn't buried under pageantry; and intimate, at the small St. Marcus Theatre, so the audience would be close to the characters.

Sometimes this idea also works. The musical's dark ending doesn't jar against too light and romantic a tone in the earlier scenes. Elemental passions and their potential for trouble lurk in the first moments, when even wise Merlin succumbs to the seductions of the flesh -- the lush voice of Kimi Short, who sings the temptress Nimue, could melt ice. Arthur is a petulant youth, not ready for the burdens of royal rule. Guenevere, in the radiant person and voice of Deborah Sharn, laments that her arranged marriage is making her miss "the simple joys of maidenhood," like duels and wars fought and suicides committed for her sake -- "joys" she will later find in abundance.

But Miller's idea runs into certain realities, too. Perhaps the most troubling is Loewe's music. Though Lerner's book at many points supports Miller's interpretation -- indeed, demands that its darker side be dealt with in some way -- Loewe's music sings in the lighter tone of Viennese operetta. "I Loved You Once in Silence" is a lovely song, but it doesn't groan under the burden Guenevere and Lancelot feel as they struggle with their passion and their betrayal of Arthur, the husband, friend and king they also love. Loewe's score reminded me of cheerful tunes from My Fair Lady, not the erotic earthquakes of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner is heady stuff, I know, but it's the territory Miller wants to drag Camelot into, and the score resists.

Miller's struggle to make a consistent whole out of Camelot, though not always successful, always intrigues. Ted Cancila's Arthur helps a lot. Cancila can be royally commanding and humanly agonized. His Arthur is a real person, not a cardboard legend. But could he also be a little complacently self-satisfied when he sings the condescendingly sexist "How to Handle a Woman"? That would help explain why Guenevere strays. Maybe then she wouldn't have to be so coquettish -- or downright, implausibly lascivious -- during "The Lusty Month of May." Perhaps a little of that flirting might lurk instead in her teasing of the high-minded Lancelot when he first appears at Camelot -- certainly the noble bearing and big baritone of Karl E. Berberich's Lancelot deserve flirting. And when Lancelot kills Sir Dinadan in the joust and then brings him back to life, I would like a little more time to register both Guenevere's guilt and her discovery of her love. Might "What Do the Simple Folk Do" be less the shared lament of an old married couple and more the agonized expression of the fractures in their marriage? Walter Marts carefully modulates his portrait of Arthur's bastard son Mordred as pure evil; might he find room for just a hint that he longs for his father's approval? And maybe Steve Johnson and Rebecca Hunter, in their humorously antiheroic versions of King Pellinore and Morgan Le Fay, point the way to an all-too-contemporary, ironic approach to the whole thing.

This may not be an entirely satisfactory Camelot. But, as all my questions suggest, it does stimulate the imagination. That in itself is worthy entertainment.

-- Bob Wilcox

Dance St. Louis

Pilobolus, the most magical of all modern-dance troupes, opened its short stay at the Fox with a newish (1998) work, "Apoplexy," which utilized all four men and two women of the company. It began with shock -- the sound of gunfire at a seemingly inoffensive group of bare-chested men and Lycra-clad women. Here and there one fell to the floor but bounced back presently. Then the fun and games began.

Pilobolus has always been a vigorous company, known for the athleticism and superb condition of its dancers, but "Apoplexy" seemed to push the troupe further than I've seen them go before. The women -- Rebecca Anderson and Josie Coyoc, neither of whom is as statuesque as Pilobolus women in former St. Louis appearances -- spent most of the piece being hurled about by one or more of the guys, who all looked, at least in this dance, more husky than previous Pilobolus men.

"Apoplexy" didn't seem to have much of a line to it; instead, various parts, not necessarily related, made up the whole. The shots that sounded at the beginning returned at the end, perhaps as an attempt at unifying the piece, but what carries "Apoplexy" is its wonderful trickiness, along with, despite an aura of darkness, a consistent comic cheerfulness.

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