An explosion sends a fast-talking French actor tumbling into a train station. So begins Carol Wolf’s The Thousandth Night, a funny yet scathing examination of complicity and self-preservation written expressly to fit around actor Ron Campbell like his character’s old coat.
Drawing from the tales of The Arabian Nights narrator Scheherazade, who every night spun out a little more story to keep her vengeful husband from killing her in the morning, Night is set in Nazi-occupied France in 1943. Guy de Bonheur’s concentration-camp-bound train has been thrown from the tracks by a Resistance bomb. Sheltering in the train station, the actor sets out to distract the gendarmes by acting out four of the “little stories” his troupe used to perform at Cafe Scheherazade in Paris before the other members were deported, beaten, or just mysteriously disappeared. His “Compagnie de Lampe Magique” had the bad fortune to roll back into Paris from a tour just in time for the occupation. Now Guy himself is headed out of France to an uncertain fate. He hopes to save his own life with his impromptu performance, if he can just charm his silent audience.
Campbell moves constantly, sliding down an imaginary banister, capering around the stage, smoothly shoulder-rolling from place to place, and playing too many characters to count, each distinct, with the help of minimal props. A coat, a satin bathrobe, scarves, a battered suitcase — in the time it takes to pass behind a column, he has turned from a narrator into a tailor’s wife, from a vizier to the sultan. He makes the audience into his gendarmes, talking to them, throwing things at them, sitting in laps.
Some of the stories are familiar — Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, for example — some not so much, like the first one, about a sultan’s pet hunchback whose death creates a major and silly ruckus. Campbell has a nice bit where he has the virgin Scheherazade reacting with shock to her new husband’s implied endowment. Campbell is fun as a woman, but especially wonderful as Marjena, Ali Baba’s wife’s maid. Marjena is the one who discovers the thieves hidden in the wine jars, but she’s too ditzy to understand why the jars speak with male voices. Marjena, fluttering her eyelashes and twisting coyly at her clothes, needs her own spinoff.
Certain things are indicated but never spelled out, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks. Guy mentions that someone from his troupe has been sent somewhere in Poland, and we guess Auschwitz. Similarly, the relationship between he and the troupe’s ingenue Lisette is nicely played in absentia. Without Campbell belaboring the point, we see that he had feelings for Lisette he may never have gotten to articulate.
One point that gets visited with increasing frequency is the question of complicity. As we learn what Guy has done, or not, to shield his troupemates from the Gestapo, the question arises: Is he a coward, or is he fighting back in the only way he knows? As he uncomfortably points out, it’s “so easy to do nothing, eh?” when it comes to saving another person’s life. Guy pleads, “I ask you, is this subversive? No, it’s just a little amusement, a nothing.” But slowly we see that these trifles have a bite; the forty thieves sound suspiciously like SS troops and the line between Guy-as-Lisette-as-Scheherazade and Lisette-as-Resistance-spy is mighty thin; a woman willingly risking her life to stop a tyrant. Campbell — and Wolf’s decade-old script — reveal layers of subtlety.
This is the actor, after all, who played Bucky Fuller in a one-man show over at San Francisco’s Theater Artaud for roughly seven or eight million years; Buckminster Fuller: The History and Mystery of the Universe kept extending and extending until Campbell had been Fuller longer than Fuller was Fuller. Campbell doesn’t just single-handedly hold the stage, he populates it. But while he is great alone, he also plays so well with others that it’s a shame to see him without anyone to bounce off of besides audience members who aren’t sure whether they’re allowed to interact with him or not.
All the shame of wartime France is captured in the moment where Guy falls to his knees before an SS captain who had previously interrogated him. This is an intense moment because Guy is not just Guy; Guy is France. Along with all the other humiliations — the occupation, the reduction of France’s army, and the “surrender on demand” clause — the 1940 armistice signed by Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain also stated that the French would pay for Germany to occupy their country.
By the time of the occupation, many French citizens — still exhausted by World War I, in which France lost more combatants than any other nation — believed that Germany already had won the second go-round. Some felt it was better to live German than die French, and for a while during the first year of the four-year occupation, the effects on Paris seemed almost positive. Theaters, cafes, and brothels were open and busy, and the mass deportation of French Jews hadn’t begun. So it took a while for French opposition to grow. But the “surrender on demand” clause stipulated that the Germans were largely free to do what they liked. Which meant that no place in France was safe for Jews, Communists, Socialists, political dissidents … or actors. This makes The Thousandth Night range from bubbly and antic to piercing and sad. “Why must the Germans always ask questions with their fists … and their boots?” Guy asks in a quiet moment.
When he finally strides out of the station, does he do so to meet his own thousandth night?