Shakespeare Downtown’s eloquent adaptation of ‘The Lady of the Camellias’ at NYC’s Castle Clinton

Now in its seventh season, Shakespeare Downtown is dedicated to promoting an interest in classical theater by presenting works that are free and accessible to everyone, inside the walls of The Battery’s Castle Clinton, in an open-air in-the-round historic setting on the waterfront that recalls London’s Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were performed more than 400 years ago.

Billie Andersson. Photo by Deb Miller.

The current production, playing a limited engagement through June 25, is an eloquent and engaging new adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ semi-autobiographical 1848 novel The Lady of the Camellias, by the company’s co-founding Artistic Director Billie Andersson, who also stars in the titular role, combined with text, concepts, and a brief segment of song from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera La traviata, which was inspired by Dumas’ own 1852 stage adaptation of the story (later called Camille in the 1936 screen version starring Greta Garbo).

Set in the demi-monde of Paris and the French countryside in the mid-19th century, the show’s lavish period-style costumes, movable furnishings, and props by Amy Goosens, with sound by Carlos Ponce and Kasey Price, beautifully evoke the era of the eponymous Marguerite Gautier, who has been living a life of pleasure as a courtesan and the mistress of a wealthy nobleman, but is now suffering from consumption (alternately interpreted as tuberculosis or syphilis), marked by severe coughing, pain, weakness, and impending death. Her situation changes from the carefree parties she throws and the men she pleasures when she is introduced by one of them, Gaston Rieux (played by Evan Olson), to the young bourgeois gentleman Armand Duval (the appropriately upright and endearing Zack Ignoffo), who fell in love with her at first sight, from a distance, and, unbeknownst to her, had visited every day when she was hospitalized for her illness.

Zack Ignoffo and Evan Olson. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Downtown.

Initially teased by Marguerite (named “the lady of the camellias” for wearing a white flower when she’s available and red when she’s not), Armand declares his love and devotion, and she is soon charmed by his innocence and the fact that, unlike the other men she has known, he “loves her for herself, not for himself.” They depart the city to enjoy some restorative months in the country together, in love, but his father Georges Duval (Craig Braun) persuades her to leave him out of concern over the damage her illicit reputation will cause Armand and his betrothed sister. She agrees to sacrifice her happiness out of her selfless love for Armand and repents her sinful life in the hopes that he and God will forgive her, on the condition that Georges tell his son the truth after she’s gone. In the end, love and constancy, acceptance and forgiveness triumph, Georges has a change of heart, and Marguerite dies in the arms of her beloved Armand.

Craig Braun, Prabal Panjabi, and Sanna Izmirlian (front) with Billie Andersson and Zack Ignoffo. Photo by Deb Miller.

The famed tragic romance is told with precision and empathy by Andersson and, under the clear, compelling direction and eye-catching blocking of Geoffrey Horne, performed by a consistently excellent cast that embodies the characters, their thoughts, and emotions with credibility and commitment. Together they effectively deliver the overlying message of the power of true love and devotion, and the underlying reality of the socio-economic challenges faced by women who satisfy the sexual desires of licentious men (but who, by contrast, don’t suffer any recrimination for their male promiscuity).

In a fluid and succinct 90 minutes, we witness Andersson’s change from a jaded Marguerite, inviting her hedonistic guests to nights of drinking, dancing (choreography by Carlos Fittante), and singing – here including a few English verses set to Verdi’s “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (“Let’s drink from the joyful cups”) – and soliloquizing about her determination to “live for pleasure,” to a woman who at last has found constancy with Armand, then suffers “a cruel end” to their love by dying so young.

Billie Andersson (left) and members of the cast. Photo by Deb Miller.

Giving fine support to the main characters as Marguerite’s circle of friends and lovers are Chantal van Zyl as Prudence Duvernoy, Jazz-Ella Reveilleau as Flora Bervoix, Rickard Claeson as the Baron de Varville, and Archie Colville as the Comte de Giray; Prabal Panjabi as her Doctor Grenvil, who delivers the bad news that she only has a few hours left to live; and the softly expressive Sanna Izmirlian as her maid Nanine, who stands by her and cares for her.

Kudos are due to Shakespeare Downtown for its affecting production of The Lady of the Camellias and its mission of bringing classic plays to the public free of charge. You have four more chances to catch it this coming Thursday through Sunday evening, so see it if you can.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

The Lady of the Camellias plays through Sunday, June 25, 2023, at 6:30 pm, at Shakespeare Downtown, performing at Castle Clinton National Monument, Battery Park, NYC. Free tickets are available at the door on the day of the performance, starting at 6 pm. Donations are welcome. Masks are not required.


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