Solid acting helps keep `La Valse' in step

Theater review

"La Valse" by S.P. Miskowski. Directed by Lisa Anne Glomb. Seattle Theatre Project, at Open Circle Theatre, 429 Boren Ave. N., Seattle. Thursday-Sunday through March 4. $15. 206-882-4250.

Though her work is displayed alongside that of her famous mentor Auguste Rodin, at the Rodin museum in Paris, sculptor Camille Claudel is better known for her tempestuous, tragic life story than for her artistic achievements.

The saga of her intense but ill-fated affair with Rodin, and her eventual descent into madness, were at the core of the uninspired 1988 film "Camille Claudel."

They're also the historical fodder for Seattle dramatist S.P. Miskowski's more absorbing and provocative but too polemical play "La Valse," seen at University of Washington several years ago, and now in a revised, improved form at Open Circle Theatre.

In this concentrated 90-minute dance, produced by Seattle Theatre Project, Miskowski views Camille's life as a work-in-progress from several angles - but largely through the guilty conscience of her brother, famed author and diplomat Paul Claudel.

Waiting to visit his sister in a mental asylum, Paul (Kevin Mesher) gets swept into a haunting waltz of memory - a swirl of flashbacks, some "directed" by the great French theater artist, Jean-Louis Barrault (Jim Gall).

We see a lusty young Camille (Susan Riddiford) defy her rigid family to become an artist, her fiery refusal to compromise her work, and glimpse her fateful affair and break-up with her teacher and lover, Rodin (Gall).

It isn't hard to make a feministvictim-symbol of Camille Claudel: She's the French sculptor version of Zelda Fitzgerald. Like Zelda she was eclipsed by a famous man, unsupported by a male-dominated culture, and too unbalanced to develop her substantial talent.

But "La Valse" doesn't just ask you to feel for Camille, and comprehend the social conditions that crushed her. It also wants you to blame her prudish brother for her plight.

Paul gets roundly indicted on several counts. Assailing his sister's open sensuality and liberated lifestyle is bad enough. But he also commits her to the asylum, pockets her inheritance, and abandons her.

Smoothly directed by Lisa Anne Glomb, and smartly lit on a spartan stage by Scott Bolman, "La Valse" is well-researched, and intelligently contrasts various artistic stances: of the outlaw (Camille), the complacent star (Rodin), and the conservative moralist (Paul).

But the play romanticizes Camille's rebelliousness. And by demonizing Paul so fiercely, the triple focus and historical context of "La Valse" are smudged.

After all, who in fin de siecle France had an enlightened view of mental illness? Or knew what to do with a paranoid, disoriented relative, other than lock her way?

Solid acting helps keep "La Valse" in step. But there are gaps: Ruddiford emphasizes Camille's strength, but doesn't convey her intrinsic fragility. And the reliable Mesher only has a few notes to play - mainly tormented and snotty.

It's Rodin who, interestingly, emerges in the most fully human form. Gall radiates authority, intelligence and magnetism in the role, making the artist a vain and flawed man, but a sympathetic one.