Betsy Ladyzhets is a once and future BBC Merlin stan.
There is a tree in the center of the stage. Constructed of papier-mâché and green paper, adorned with leaves and lights and flowers, this tree (designed by Courtney Jacobs, BC ’21) grabs your attention from the moment you enter the Lerner Black Box, at the Columbia Musical Theater Society’s production of Camelot. The tree holds your attention throughout the show, as characters hide behind its trunk, dance beneath its branches, and climb the lattice at its center. And it changes with the show’s tone: bright green leaves and pink flowers at the beginning, fall colors in Act Two, bare branches at the show’s climax, and a few flowers in the final song.
This tree is only one example of the heavy-handed techniques upon which CMTS’s Camelot relies to convey its ancient tale of love, honor, and civilization. Yet rather than rendering the script cheesy, the show’s clear symbolism and exaggerated acting made Camelot a production that was intensely emotional and incredibly fun to watch.
Camelot, as one might infer from the name, tells the story of Arthur, King of the Britons (Jane Watson, CC ’22). It begins with Arthur’s wedding to Queen Guinevere (Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21), then takes the audience through Arthur’s establishment of the Round Table, the arrival of Lancelot (Chad Arle, CC ’21), and the kingdom’s downfall at the hands of Arthur’s bastard son Mordred (Jackson Davis, CC ’22). The script itself is somewhat of a relic: it was written by Lerner and Loewe in 1960, and carries the misogyny of its time along with a story that is all ideas and no plot. (Lancelot’s reveal that he’s been in love with Guinevere this whole time, for example, had this reviewer whispering WHAT out loud in the theater.) CMTS’ production brings this story into the twenty-first century, with gender-bent casting and direction (by Hannah Rubenstein, BC ’21) which adds weight to the nobility of Camelot’s ideas, while upturning many of its flaws into humorous moments.
This show would be nothing without a good King Arthur, and Jane Watson was more than up to the task. From her first scene, she embodied Arthur as a natural yet nervous leader, so intent on making the right decision for his people yet so terrified of thinking for himself. Watson moved around the stage like a giant golden retriever who really wants to play with you but has to be sure you’re cool with it first. But she also carried moments of sincerity with depth and reverence; her “sword in the stone” monologue was the first time I sat up and realized this show was more than a comedy. And she aged with Arthur throughout the show, embodying his acceptance of his kingly duty above his own emotions, his self-sacrifice, and his renewed hope in his Round Table idea. This is an Arthur you want to fight for.
Houdaigui’s Guinevere was a perfect counterpart to Watson’s Arthur, and not just because that height difference is [chef’s kiss] delicious. While Watson was more openly energetic, Houdaigui was restrained, communicating through gestures and eye-rolls which showed that she would give her husband the right nudges to actually follow through on a thought for once, but she wouldn’t be docile about it. Houdaigui also gained dimension during the second act, displaying emotional depth and an incredible voice in “I Loved You Once in Silence.” This Guinevere is no traitor; she is a woman intensely divided between her heart and her nation, and she is suffering every minute for it.
Arle’s Lancelot enters Camelot as a comical figure, showing off his physical (and I do mean physical) prowess during “C’est Moi.” He’s arrogant, he knows his own strength, and he will let you feel his bicep if you want. Although his turn to emotional resonance came rather quickly, he carried it in stride as he exaggerated his moments of intimacy just as he had exaggerated his moments of comedy.
The show’s supporting cast was incredible as well; each person played multiple roles and ran the gauntlet from comic relief to angry challenger of Arthur’s rule. Jackson Davis was particularly notable: he drew the audience’s laughter simply by running really intensely as the Page, then fully embodied the chaotic bastard out to fuck his dad’s shit up as Mordred. Also, Arielle Firestone (GS/JTS ’19) was a haunting and powerful Nimue, Maia Prest (CC ’20) was hilarious as Pellinore (wot!), and Sal Volpe (CC ’19) gave approximately two hundred percent to both Sir Dinadan and Dap.
All of the actors’ talents were supported by choreography (by Erin Hilgartner, CC ’21) that was both powerful and fun to watch. The show, in fact, began with choreography: Houdaigui, Watson, and Arle danced to the Overture in a pattern which foreshadowed their characters’ eventual love triangle. But while this dance and others for the romantic songs embodied growing connections between characters, other choreographic choices were less PG. Every moment of potential euphemism in this show was realized onstage, and numbers such as “C’est Moi” and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” really brought that energy out. This production is worth the price of admission simply for “The Lusty Month of May.” Choreography for “The Jousts” was also notable, as the fights (choreographed by Alexandra Haddad, BC ’21), were impressively set to match the music, played by a pit (directed by Seth Schultheis, MSM ’22) which was on its A-game throughout the show.
Other technical aspects of the production additionally served to bring it into a modern-day setting, while evoking ancient themes. Costumes (by Ilana Lupkin, BC ’20) such as Lancelot’s imitation chain-mail vest, Pellinore’s armor, and Merlyn’s massive cape emphasized character traits that bridged folk tales and cocktail parties. Guenevere seemed to have a more gorgeous outfit every time we saw her, elevating her status as a queen even as she grew more internally conflicted. Props, meanwhile (by Gaby Ferrell, BC ’19) added comedy through anachronism: Sal Volpe’s Milstein Center fanny pack had the audience in stitches. And lights (by Gabo Lizardo, CC ’19) were mostly understated, but changed at key moments to evoke mood or symbolism; for example, a round table of light and shadow appeared on stage during several inspirational moments, fractured during Guenevere’s downfall, then returned at the very end.
Rubinstein’s Director’s Note reads: “It was the emotional core of the story that moved me: a group of people who attempt to create a society that values all voices equally, who persist in their optimism for a more just world when all evidence ought to point them towards pessimism. A group of people who love and care for each other fiercely.” If members of the audience were rolling our eyes during the preshow, by the end of the play we knew exactly what she meant. The production leaned into its question of, “what if we created a society with no fighting and no borders?”—as poignant a question in 2019 as it was in 1960—with a genuine, realistic, and heartfelt optimism that didn’t tip the scales into parody. Against all odds, the characters were sympathetic and well-rounded, the pared-down plot was believable, and the direction made this script the very best it could be.
More than that, though, this Camelot is simply a good time. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much during a student theater production. And any show which can ask you the important questions and distract you from them for a minute with a well-executed thrust is, in the script’s own words, one which deserves to be remembered.