Camelot

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 27, 2013

Erica Spyres as Guenevere and Marc Koeck as Lancelot in New Rep’s production of ’Camelot,’ playing through Dec 22
Erica Spyres as Guenevere and Marc Koeck as Lancelot in New Rep’s production of ’Camelot,’ playing through Dec 22   (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Photography)

The King Arthur of the Alan Jay Lerner / Frederick Loewe musical "Camelot" is a youthful sort -- perhaps boyish is a better word for him. When he first appears, crawling out of a tree like a scolded child under the disapproving eye of his mentor Merlin (Robert D. Murphy), Arthur is in a state of mixed emotions; he's bashful, exited, curious, and frightened, in a state of agitation because he is about to meet, and marry, a foreign princess named Guinevere (Erica Spyres).

Arthur, as played by Benjamin Evett, hardly presents a kingly aspect at this early juncture, but this plays into the subsequent scene well: Guinevere, having run away into the woods because she is unwilling to get married at her tender young age, mistakes Arthur for an ordinary denizen of the kingdom, and even asks him to elope with her before realizing he is, in fact, the man she's supposed to marry. As her first big number, "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," reveals (and "The Lusty Month of May" confirms), her wildness has an aura of entitlement to it (she'd love it if soldiers clashed and perished all for the sake of her beauty), not to mention a dangerous carnal edge... but more on that later.

The leads thus having met cute, they wed and, five years later, determine to bring civilization to their peaceable realm. No longer will knights slaughter peasants and the law of the land consist of whatever whims the rich and powerful might indulge in. From now on, discourse will precede action, and individuals -- no matter their rank and station -- be subject to the law. Arthur is young enough, hopeful enough, and maybe naïve enough to believe that he can not only lead society, but also remake how it works.

With the arrival of the preternaturally gifted Lancelot (Marc Koeck), Arthur has the keystone for his "Knights of the Round Table," sort of a United Nations of armed and armored noblemen. Lancelot may come across as arrogant (his introductory song "C'est Moi" is a tongue-in-cheek dazzler of self-promotion), but he has the advantage of being just as martially skilled, and as spiritually pure, as he claims to be. Almost at once, Lancelot becomes Arthur's right hand man: indeed, the king could ask for no better man to be his "friend, son, or brother," as Arthur notes at one point.

What Arthur cannot change is human nature. Lancelot may be a (nearly) perfect man, but he's still a man -- a heterosexual man, alas, and that's the rub: That lusty queen Arthur married cannot help herself. She's consumed with desire for Lancelot, and Lancelot, in his turn, desires Guinevere. (The play's book and lyrics are a bit dated with regard to Guinevere: She comes across as, alternately, a whore and a virgin; there are traces of a sexually self-possessed woman there, but she's cast in the all too familiar role of vixen temptress.)

If Lancelot and Guinevere's pining for one another chafes the king, the arrival of his scheming bastard son Mordred (Nick Sulfaro) tips things right into chaos: Mordred, sizing things up with the keen eye of a predator, manipulates everyone's weaknesses so that the very virtues of civilization that Arthur seeks to instill become weapons to be used against him. (Indeed, Mordred's views on all things decent, honorable, and altruistic are summed up in his signature tune, "The Seven Deadly Virtues." Little wonder he later serves as ringleader for a rousing rendition of "Fie on Goodness," in which a clutch of brawny knights, bored with peaceful pursuits, get excited at the prospect of some good, old fashioned rapine and pillage.)

This being a family-friendly show, we're spared any scenes of overt infidelity: A kiss between Lancelot and Guinevere suffices to trigger Mordred's plan (he charges the queen with treachery and insists that the law's provision of death by burning at the stake be carried out, even as he plots to unravel the rule of law in Camelot). We're also spared the gore and tumult of the final battle; instead, we're treated to a pre-skirmish encounter between Arthur and a young boy who has come to sign on to the Knights of the Round Table. The future, it seems, is chivalry and honor: Arthur has ignited the imaginations of youths everywhere.

The notion behind this production is that "Camelot" the musical will resonate with the "Camelot" of the JFK administration. This production is timely not only because of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, but also because in our age, as in every age, the same pitched battle rages between reason and impulse, compassion and violence, an ideal of civility and the essential lusts of domination and destruction.

All these colors are brought to the fore by Russell Garrett, who understands that this is both a confection and a serious interpretation of important literature. The sweetness and fun is present and accounted for -- in the performances and the choreography (also the work of Garrett), as well as in David McGrory's music direction. But there are strains of serious political and ethical thought running through this play, and they're suitably, subtly underscored.

"Camelot" continues through Dec. 22 at the Charles Mosisian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.newrep.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.