In an era when the term “diva” has been so watered down that we use it to describe Paris Hilton, it’s nice to be reminded that divas were once the greatest performers of their time, the grande dames of opera and theatre.
On the stages of 1890s Europe no dames were grander than France’s Sarah Bernhardt and Italy’s Eleonora Duse, known in equal measure for their talent, glamour, and difficult temperaments. So what fun to imagine, as American playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag has done, both larger-than-life women performing the same role, each with her own leading man, on the same day in the same Parisian theatre.
And it’s not just any role. They collide over the juiciest plum of the age, playing tragic courtesan Marguerite Gautier, who dies magnificently of love and consumption in Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias. The comic possibilities for the clash of the diva titans here are delicious.
Both Garrett-Groag’s script and John R. Taylor’s United Players production offer tantalizing tastes of how funny this might be, but neither carries it off.
The first act is promising. Signora Eleonora (Claire Lindsay), dark and melancholy, has replaced the prop camellias on the set with roses, having decided camellias are vulgar. To sabotage her rival, sunny Madame Sarah (Deborah Spitz) tampers with the furniture and slips her pet snakes into Duse’s stage vases.
As the divas waltz around each other, politely dripping venom with tight smiles and extended claws, Dumas (Robert Clarke) laments what the starlets do to his play.
Things take a serious wrong turn when a Russian anarchist (Casey Manderson) takes everyone hostage. The entire second act becomes a repetitious debate about politics versus art, with lots of ironic theatrical name-dropping—Shaw, Chekhov, Stanislavsky. The argument is not funny or illuminating, and the gratuitous appearance of Cyrano de Bergerac (James Gill) removes us even further from the central comic conflict.
I enjoyed most of the performances, especially Lindsay’s stern and haughty Duse. But Spitz is miscast as Bernhardt, offering only hints of the divine Madame’s legendary grandeur and eccentricity. And everyone’s comic timing was off the night I saw the show. From the sound cues to the physical business everything seemed slightly out of sync.
The best comic energy came from the leading men, who have their own problems acting with the ladies. “She only coughs during my lines,” the unfortunately named Worms (Tariq Leslie) complains of Bernhardt’s tubercular Marguerite. “Mine only dies when she feels like it,” commiserates Duse’s Signor Ando (Victor Vasuta).
As Oscar Wilde, the divas’ contemporary, famously noted: dying is easy—comedy is hard.