There's Life in This Corpse!

Thanks in no small part to merely the finest actor you may ever see

Nothing should infuriate a director more than a cast member who mugs. The actor who pauses, turns toward the audience and Delivers . . . His . . . Line. Or the actress who unobtrusively listens to a conversation about her character while quite obtrusively grimacing in anger. It looks stagy and actorly, the kind of thing the 20th century's emphasis on realism (i.e., Stanislavski's system, Strasberg's method) has tried to eradicate. Yet, like the noxious weed it is, it still creeps into performances ranging from professionals to rank amateurs.But, paradoxically, when it crops up in an actor at the top of his or her game, all you can do is thank Thespis for the opportunity to see it in action.Which bring us to Ron Campbell, who is starring in the International City Theater's production of Corpse! I've sung Campbell's praises many, many times. From the classics to the contemporary, the man is a theatrical monster-for my money, he's the most fascinating actor working in Southern California theater. Anyone who truly aspires to this "lowest of the arts" should follow him around as slavishly as others follow Rent and the remnants of the Grateful Dead. Campbell is a lithe physical comedian who is also a devastatingly serious actor, someone who blends experience, confidence and acute instincts with an impeccable stage voice and agile body.He is also quite capable of being an irrepressible ham, the kind of actor who delights in playing to the audience. The key, however, is that Campbell is working at such a high level he's able to get away with choices that actors below his caliber would be shot for attempting. He can be incredibly broad and deceptively subtle in the same role-sometimes even in the same moment. The other key, of course, is that Campbell is drawn to roles that allow him to indulge his unique, quirky muse: Shakespeare's Richard III and Iago, Moliere's imaginary invalid. And now Corpse! This is a typical British comedy-suspense yarn with an atypical gimmick: one actor plays identical twins, one of whom is plotting to kill the other. It takes a while to get going (playwright Gerald Moon front-loads his unnecessarily complicated plot with more exposition than a Senate filibuster), but once it does, it's a great trip, punctuated by three excellent performances and mostly crisp direction by Jules Aaron.Campbell plays polar-opposite brothers Evelyn and Rupert. Evelyn is the flamboyant one, a struggling actor living in a cold-water flat who survives by stealing food from fashionable grocery stores. Rupert is the anal one, a fabulously successful, upper-middle-class snoot. One similarity binds the twins as much as it anchors Campbell's performance: both are supremely arrogant. (At one point, Evelyn requests that his twin be shot through the heart in order not to mar the perfect beauty of their shared face.)Perhaps because of that arrogance, the twins hate each other. The hatred takes on a murderous edge when Evelyn solicits a third-rate criminal named Major Powell (a blustery, funny Frank Ashmore) to help him assassinate Rupert. Powell agrees, and the plot finally gets going, only to be nearly derailed by the constant interruptions of Evelyn's landlady, the randy Mrs. McGee (a likable but ultimately unnecessary Jacque Mellor).This is an efficient and smart-looking production (thanks to Bradley Kaye's detailed set design and Sherry Linnell's costumes) but one that didn't feel as funny as it should have. The performances were solid, but the physical timing needed work. For instance, at one point, Powell is forced to pretend that the apparently mortally wounded Rupert is alive in order to fool Mrs. McGee. He drapes a shirt around Rupert's head, sits him on his lap, and initiates a grotesque pantomime, playing the Edgar Bergen to Rupert's Charlie McCarthy. A moment that should have had the audience in stitches barely inflicted a flesh wound.Another example: a running gag features one of the twins lying on the floor while the other walks through a door on the other side of the room. Campbell slips offstage and gets to his mark easily. Unfortunately, we can hear him clunking behind the set the entire time.But there's nothing wrong with Campbell's performance-or anyone else's, for that matter. Campbell has created two quite distinct characters. From their vocal inflections to their mannerisms, Evelyn and Rupert are separate entities, yet they're not so dissimilar we forget they plopped out of the same womb. And although Campbell certainly plays to the audience, I'd never suggest he does this purely out of ego. In a recent interview with Backstage West, Campbell is quoted as saying he thinks theater should banish the fourth wall. By playing it safe, he implies, theater practitioners might find themselves playing to smaller and smaller audiences. But by removing the artificial barrier between the audience and the stage, we come closer to the ritualistic connection that prompted the Greeks to get onstage in the first place.In that respect, Campbell may be one of the few authentic artists working on the stage. He's using his rather sacred position to reclaim the primacy of the Actor and re-establish the bond between performer and audience that has been lost to realism and the rise of the Director. If nothing else, it's a lot of fun to watch. And in the end, that may be just as important.Corpse! at the International City Theatre at the Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 938-4128. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 27. $27-$30.

 
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