- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

Italian comic Roberto Benigni fused Holocaust horrors with broad comedy in 1998's "Life Is Beautiful," a move so brash it earned him a best actor statuette.
"The Thousandth Night," the one-man show at MetroStage's Alexandria theater, treads similar thematic turf.
It does so, though, without any celluloid tricks. All it has are some meager props and actor Ron Campbell's work to sustain it. Fortunately, Mr. Campbell could conjure a stage full of thespians, so expert is his gift for evocative acting.
"Life Is Beautiful" gave Mr. Benigni only one role to tackle. Mr. Campbell must inhabit 38 characters throughout "Night's" potent one-act span, set in 1943 occupied France near the German border.
You see Mr. Campbell sweat, but he makes each jarring transformation look easy.
We first meet his nomadic actor Guy de Bonheur near a railroad station, clad in a garish, eggplant purple striped suit.
A group of French police officers is holding him captive on charges of propagating subversive material through his art. To clear his name and avoid a one-way ticket to the nearest concentration camp, he begins performing snippets of his act to illustrate its benign nature.
Each story is meant to delight the officers and prove his point, but the revealing nature of art, we learn, is more subversive than he realizes.
Playwright Carol Wolf cleverly constructs the play so that each story's lesson builds upon the last.
Through them, we learn of Guy's passive cowardice and that of his countrymen as the Nazi troops storm across his land.
Mr. Campbell, who previously earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his work in the play, supplies the characters with tiny traits that bring each to life. A dwarf's wandering tongue can't stay inside his mouth. A sultan's toothy grin emits a telegraphed twinkle.
The lanky actor works equally well with the goodies hidden in his traveling trunk. He stuffs his shirt with a pillow to supply a woman's ample bosom one moment, then a commoner's bloated belly the next.
The imaginative use of such rickety props gives Mr. Campbell's performance an unexpected tenderness.
Guy's first yarn, however, nearly derails the play's delicate narrative. Its tale of a presumedly dead dwarf packs too many characters into too shallow a story, coming off like a vanity showcase for Mr. Campbell's comic chops. Subsequent stories boast fewer characters and are more engaging, as a result.
Director Jessica Kubzansky keeps Mr. Campbell's sizable abilities mostly in check until the final story. He adopts a Shatner-esque staccato delivery for its protagonist, which elicits idiosyncratic chuckles.
Sound designer Tony Angelini escalates the Nazi menace with a rogue's gallery of train whistles and chugging engines. Our imaginations supply the newsreel footage of pale, innocent prisoners riding the rails to their destruction.
"NIght" may share themes with "Life Is Beautiful," but the play began its life in 1993 when Mr. Campbell began collaborating on a play using "The Arabian Nights" as its genesis.
His familiarity with the material and all its characters lets each impersonation soar while reminding us of the power that one-man theater can summon.
***
WHAT: "The Thousandth Night"
WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 20
TICKETS: $30
PHONE: 703/548-9044
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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