Telling stories is one thing, but listening to them is quite another. For at one level, de Bonheur's own passivity -- his refusal to speak up for fellow actors threatened by the Nazis in the past -- is what leads in part to the breakup of his company. At another, the play calls the entire relationship between the performer onstage and the traditionally passive audience into question. Such is the tautness of Campbell's acting, Wolf's writing, and Jessica Kubzansky's direction that the audience is not only completely drawn into de Bonheur's antics, but also plays an unwitting role in deciding the man's fate. From the very first moments of the play, Campbell addresses us. We, it seems, have been cast as his guards, the Nazi-sympathizing Vichyist gendarmes. It's hardly a relaxing, sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show, munch-on-some-popcorn thought. As Campbell puts it in a recent interview with Theatre Bay Area's Karen McKevitt, "The audience is your scene partner, whether they like it or not." Simply stated, you can't sit in the audience and not be a part of this play. We feel the throb in the floorboards as each train passes, see the spluttering lights, and smell de Bonheur's fear.
It is precisely this quality that makes The Thousandth Night such a daring, deeply engaging experience. Theatrical conventions require us to be passive, not to speak out. We're supposed to sit there quietly until the end, clap politely, and head for the nearest bar. But the power of theater is such that, at its best, the audience is complicit in the experience. We cannot be passive. And yet there's a tension in that complicity, for there are not many -- and I have this on good authority from Campbell himself -- who'd forget themselves enough to stand up in the middle of a darkened auditorium on full public view and yell, "Stop! Stop! De Bonheur is innocent! Save de Bonheur!"
In The Thousandth Night, Ron
Campbell plays as many as eight characters
We are faced with an abhorrent reality: Being a good, obedient audience member in this context means being a good, obedient Vichyist gendarme. The implications of this resonate well beyond the limits of Aurora Theatre's intimate stage: Telling stories might be dangerous. It might cost you your life. But not telling them -- letting terrible things happen as you sit calmly by -- is much, much worse.