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For the week of Dec. 22, 1999 through Dec. 28, 1999

Infinite Jest

LA actor performs 38 parts in ‘The Thousandth Night’

Express Staff Writer

In "The Thousandth Night," Los Angles-based actor Ron Campbell peoples the stage with a vast cast of characters—including, but not limited to, a French actor on the run from the Gestapo, a hunchback dwarf, Aladdin and Ali Baba.

Company of Fools brings the award-winning tour de force to the stage of the Liberty Theater Dec. 28-30 at 8 p.m.

Written for Campbell by historian and playwright Carol Wolf, "The Thousandth Night" is about a French cabaret actor named Guy de Bonheur who is ensnared by French gendarmes during the German occupation of Paris in 1943.

The Jewish actors in de Bonheur’s troupe have been arrested for "subversive work," and de Bonheur’s own escape fails when the train he is riding breaks down outside of Paris.

Always the jester, de Bonheur persuades the gendarmes to let him act out scenes from his former troupe’s production of "The Arabian Nights."

Whether he succeeds in escaping to Paris or joins the train lurching to a labor camp is somewhat ambiguous and changes from performance to performance.

That’s because Wolf’s play is presented without a fourth wall. The audience is brought into the action, playing the part of the gendarmes.

"There is a ray of hope in the writing that people latch onto in all kinds of ways," Campbell said in a telephone interview from San Diego. "There are a thousand tales of survival, heroism and courage that have come out of the great conflicts of humanity, and this is just one of them. But it’s unusual in that de Bonheur is using his imagination as a weapon."

That facet of his character clearly intrigues Campbell, who has been acting for a living for some 20 years. The recipient of 13 Drama-Logue Awards, Campbell made his living as a street performer in Europe before becoming a founding member of the Actor’s Gang in Los Angeles.

The use of the imagination as a weapon also appealed to Company of Fools managing director Denise Simone.

"It’s very much a play about the fool, who for us is often the bearer of truth, even if the truth is disguised in comedy," Simone said.

It’s not just the fool’s cajoling, however, that caught Simone’s attention.

"‘The Thousandth Night’ reflects our mission to present works that depict the human heart in conflict with itself," she said. "We wanted a show that made a statement about the millennium, and it occurred to us that the seminal event of this century was probably the Holocaust. So it’s a comedy, but a comedy with heart."

Simone and Company of Fools artistic director Rusty Wilson also liked the actor-audience interaction that happens in the play.

"We loved the way [Campbell] endowed the audience with a role, and the immediacy of that relationship," Simone said. "It’s going to make his performance change nightly, minute by minute. He’ll reinvent the show every night."

While he assured that he "won’t be sitting in anyone’s lap," Campbell also said he revels in the sense of community that theater provides.

"Any movie or TV show that you see took place in the past," Campbell said urgently. "It’s only in the theater where the event takes place in that moment, where we’re in same the room, breathing the same air and spending the evening together, hopefully in occupied Paris."

It takes a fit of athleticism to take audiences to Paris and to introduce the 38 characters.

"It’s a process of twisting myself inside and out," Campbell said. "You start to find systems that give the characters distinction."

One of those systems that has worked for Campbell is figuring out how each character would hold his or her chin. The position of the chin is emblematic of the kind of personality they have, Campbell said.

"The Thousandth Night" premiered at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in 1993, where it won a Los Angeles Circle Award and two Robbie Award nominations.

The Los Angeles Times called it "an unusual piece of writing, with its flashes of ribald humor and its moments of bitterness, but at the end, its total effect is astonishing."

Since then, the play has taken Campbell around the world, from Tel Aviv to Telluride.

Tickets for the Dec. 28, 29 and 30 shows are $15 general admission and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at Chapter One in Ketchum and Read All About It in Hailey. The play is appropriate for ages 11 and up. For more information, call 788-1051.


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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.