Dark Knights

CAMELOT
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

PILOBOLUS
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.

The four men of Pilobolus -- Otis Cook, Matt Kent, Gaspard Louis and Benjamin Pring -- ended the first half of the evening with 1997's "Gnomen," a dance made in memory of a friend and colleague. The four men, dressed in tight black trunks, enter a dim stage in a close body, supporting one who seems injured. The role of the wounded comrade passes among the other four throughout the dance, and there seems to be a good deal of innocent brutality throughout the piece, like little boys picking on one another in a kind of curiosity. Throughout the piece one or another of the dancers seems to become weightless as his fellows lift him with their toes or with a couple of fingers, as if corpse is becoming spirit before us. The movement is slow and thoughtful, and Paul Sullivan's music sounds like something for a movie -- lush, highly colored, quite romantic.

The evening ended with "Aeros," a 1996 piece wherein Benjamin Pring, in 1930s aviator gear, crashes in smoke in a strange land whose citizens move about with their trunks bent double, their arms wrapped about their calves and their heads looking at the world from between their ankles. One of them, however, Rebecca Anderson, flies, swooping and dipping, with, over and among her four male attendants. She and the aviator are instantly attracted. Despite her own shyness and the protectiveness of her attendants, the two get together, but he must leave (by way of a flying harness) to defend the free world or whatever. The piece is silly, extremely pretty and rather moving, all at once.

Although this Pilobolus concert never inspired the awe that other appearances have, it was still great fun. Most of the troupe is relatively new -- three have been with the company for a year or less. Perhaps we need to have them back in a year or so when they are better accustomed to one another and have mastered some of the older repertory that gave Pilobolus its well-deserved renown.

-- Harry Weber

THE MATCHMAKER
By Thornton Wilder
Kirkwood Theatre Guild

When the creators of Hello, Dolly! turned Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker into a musical, they kept most of Wilder's plot until near the end, when they simplified the wrap-up. They also, wisely, made some changes in the dialogue. Wilder's quirky humor lives in a world more whimsical than that of musical comedy.

You can savor the pleasures of Wilder's world in the central performances of the Kirkwood Theatre Guild's continued on page 77continued from page 74current production of the play. The obtuse gruffness of George Wiseheart's Horace Vandergelder is always amusing, never mean. John Inchiostro and Mark Vaughan radiate comic energy as Vandergelder's put-upon clerks. They're joyously partnered by Janet Seitz and Kelly Schnider as the young women who egg them on to delightful adventures. Susan Filtrante's Dolly Levi should be larger than life but isn't; her schemes, however, do keep the action moving. Except for the climax of the Harmonia Gardens scene, which whips by too swiftly to savor, Lori Renna directs crisply and clearly.

-- Bob Wilcox

MERGED
Mid America Dance Company

A March concert is a longstanding Mid America Dance Company tradition. In bygone days it was called Company Works and featured choreography by Madco dancers themselves, as well as that of established choreographers.

Madco continued this tradition last weekend in a dance concert named Merged, which showed off dance pieces by three current Madco dancers, a former Madco dancer who is now a prominent dance educator, and a choreographer teaching at Southwest Missouri State University. The company also reconstructed a 1987 piece by its late co-founder, Ross Winter.

The most successful new work was Madco company member Todd Weeks' 1999 "Nucleus," which utilized the entire Madco company, as well as three young intern dancers from Lindenwood University. Weeks himself, Madco artistic director Stacy West and company member Kate Benkert Meacham, clothed in flame-colored bodysuits, were the principal dancers, with the rest of the company and the interns, in electric-blue bodysuits, rushing around and about. "Nucleus" is pure dance and pure fun -- vigorous, fast and consistently upward, made to please the eye and the spirits.

The Winter piece, "Hidden Walls of Time," is much more pure dance than the program note might lead one to believe. It opens with the lights coming up slowly to reveal three mounds, which resolve themselves into three long-skirted dancers, two men and a woman. Long skirts, of course, are made for swirling, which the three dancers do, and so do the rest of the company, in shorter skirts. The wheeling and revolving, seldom all going the same way (or at all) at the same time, reminded me of the wheels and springs of an old-fashioned watch. The works didn't seem to be coordinated, but the face of the watch moved steadily around. The whirling and spinning, however, gradually comes to a stop, and the dancers become much more angular, much more static, once again evoking the watch image. This time, however, the watch is running down, changing back into inanimate metal from the elegant movement it had before.

The rest of the evening was not as interesting. Rob Scoggins' 1999 "Bologna Sandwich" is more performance piece than dance, amusing most of the time but often obscure. When Scoggins did dance, however, he was delightful, as was Alice Bloch as his muse. Kate Benkert Meacham's 1999 "One for My Baby," with Todd Weeks as a father marrying off one daughter after another, was sweet and touching but a bit wispy. Much of the handsome dancing arose from ballroom steps, and the company looked awfully classy throughout. Julie Voellinger's 1999 "Shades of Blue" also seemed a bit lacking in substance, although the Madco women, in violet satin chemises, shakin' their booties to John Lee Hooker, were certainly sexy and entertaining.

The two pieces by Sara Brummel, one opening the evening and the other closing the first part of the program, were the least successful, which no one would have known unless they were given a chance to succeed. You always take a chance, as performer or audience member, on new work, which is occasionally disappointing. But how disappointing is a work that gets Stacy West, one of the area's most engaging professional dancers, downstage center, moving so beautifully that you're inclined to tear up?

-- Harry Weber

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