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A knight's tale 

by Michael Bowen


There's a moment in this show of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's that typifies its misguided mingling of the comic and the tragic. The heroine is apparently being led off to her death. With her fall will come the demise of the entire society she and her husband have worked to build. And all the while, the chorus is wondering, in a perky sort of way, whether the king would actually let the queen die.


The theme craves seriousness, yet it's conveyed in a song with jaunty rhythms, and the combination is unsettling.


Camelot has endured because it features lovely songs and characters who are trying hard to better their lives. The show's mix of humor and pathos is a tricky assignment. Still, Roger Welch's Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre production should keep in mind from the beginning that the whole point is to convey a sense of loss, of wasted opportunity, of an ideal society glimpsed and then discarded because of human failings. In its first half, the show forgets its purposes, as it were, going for the boyish and the playful.


That's especially true in Bob DeDea's characterization of King Arthur. There's nothing wrong with wanting us to like Arthur and his queen, or even with tracing their development from naive creatures into the more somber figures who dominate the end of the play. But the characters' growth from comic to tragic needs to be limned carefully. This production instead offers only abrupt transitions.


As Arthur, DeDea relies for too much of the evening on the cutesy mannerisms of Wart, his boyhood persona. There's something about the quality of the voice DeDea chooses -- call it comic stridency -- that reminds us more of Merlin's pupil than it does of Camelot's disillusioned king


Later, with his discovery that might should do right, Arthur becomes the visionary, idealistic king. But the libretto couches such perfection in terms of the weather only (in Camelot, you will recall, "July and August never are too hot"). Camelot, an image of Eden, is meteorologically perfect. But there's not much sense in the script of a large group of people -- even a representatively small group of people -- functioning together smoothly in an idealized society. We don't even see the Knights of the Round Table except as faceless chorus members.


As Lancelot, the shining example of chivalry whose idealism parallels Arthur's own, Kevin Partridge is properly rigid, deferential, sanctimonious. But we need to see more passion in the character. Partridge doesn't seem persuasively in love with Guenevere early on; in fact, the character is laughably vain, unable to generate much passion for anyone other than himself. But the plot requires Lancelot to be a passionate lover. In this production, his first confessions of love seem to come out of nowhere.


The tragic effects that this show hopes for are also undermined because one side of the love triangle falls flat. We know that Arthur and Guenevere love each other, and it's evident that Lancelot has abruptly got the hots for Guenevere. Much is made of the dilemma of Arthur, torn between the woman he loves and the fellow knight he has come to admire. Yet there's little evidence that Arthur has much affection for Lancelot, that vaguely ridiculous, excessively pious, eventually adulterous knight.


Similarly, Welch's direction is sometimes unconvincing. "The Lusty Month of May," for example, seems lifeless when staged with just four women in a boudoir. Why not match them up with some of the Round Table knights in the chorus? And the slo-mo battle sequences, with Lancelot flashing steel languorously, do nothing to enliven his efforts to rescue Guenevere.


But this Queen Guenevere doesn't need any rescuing. All questions of Equity status aside, Kelly Quinnett is the real star of this show. In outstanding performances, actors draw attention to themselves in ways that reinforce the theme; as Guenevere, Quinnett does just that. The production's sense of irretrievable loss derives primarily from her stage presence. She can caress a tune, too. In a show that often misses the note of comedy mingled with sadness, moreover, Quinnett's acting sings beautifully.


In his opening number as Mordred, Arthur's evil bastard son, Patrick Treadway effectively uses the petals of a rose to enumerate what his character sarcastically regards as the Seven Deadly Virtues. Treadway's body language wordlessly conveys malevolence: when lounging on Arthur's throne, he effectively possesses it.


Judith and Michael McGiveney have devised some effective visuals, all gloomy forests and magical trees. A curtain festooned with vines and branch-like decorations effectively conveys a sense of being out in the woods, even when it's being used simply to cover scene changes.


Welch makes several excellent directorial decisions, especially in the play's tragic final scenes. At the end of the jousts, he arranges for the love triangle to go literally into the spotlight, with Arthur gazing forlornly at the two lovers. It was a nice touch at the end to have Tom of Warwick, the boy who believes in the promise of Camelot, run out into the audience. With this simple expedient, we suddenly realize that this boy represents our hope for perfecting society. The vision continues with Guenevere, who, after returning for the curtain call in the same white furred cloak in which she first appeared, slow-dances with Arthur, an emblem of what might have been.

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