An unorthodox, but captivating 'Camelot' at Mercury Theatre Company

I’m not sure you’ll find “Doylesque” in any dictionary, but it’s an apt adjective for the vibrant, creative production of “Camelot” Mercury Theatre Company is staging for its second production this summer.
In the above, I’m referring to director John Doyle, who’s known for his “actor-musicianship” approach to productions he's directed.
Simply, the actors play their own instruments.
Doyle has said his concept began out of economic necessity and evolved into a storytelling approach.
It can, among other things, further an actor’s ability to express a character’s emotions.

MTC director Pierre-Jacques Brault is putting the concept to good use.
“Camelot,” an Arthurian musical about King Arthur's vision of perfection is, as befits a king, elegant and stately. The actors playing the instruments lends an aura of formality that wouldn’t be as strong with an orchestra in a pit.
The enhanced formality is especially effective in this production with the use of instruments such as the trumpet, which brings to mind the notion of heralding royalty.
Dignified instruments are congruent with the lush melodies of Frederick Loewe, “Camelot’s” composer who also wrote the music for musicals such as the also sophisticated but deeper “My Fair Lady.”
Loewe teamed up with Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) for “Camelot,” just as he did with “My Fair Lady,” among other musicals.
Lerner’s a fitting last name for the Harvard-educated composer whose witty, smart lyrics make up the books of “Camelot” and “My Fair Lady.”
At least once during the performance I attended, the instruments drowned out the actors’ voices. However, this was the exception.
At times during this production, it’s appropriate for the instruments to sound harsh. An example is the song “Guenevere,” sung after she’s been sentenced by Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, to be burned, accused of unfaithfulness.
At another point, Jacques Brault makes good use of the piano to illustrate Sir Lancelot's competitive, narcissistic personality. The overly confident knight pushes the actor playing the piano off the bench, sits down and plays it himself.
Jacques Brault and Co. have created a refreshing take on the classic musical, which opened in 1960 on Broadway and starred Julie Andrews as Queen Guenevere and Richard Burton as King Arthur.
Credit, also, the convincing, vivacious, comical performances and the fine technical work.
That includes a marvelous job by lighting designer Robert Peck, whose use of colors, along with fog, reinforces the non-realism of the piece.
Kudos are also due scenic artist Janet Conley, whose make-believe trees place us in an otherworldly atmosphere. The candles, meanwhile, create an elegant environment.
The uncredited costumes are period works of art, although I have to question King Arthur’s wearing jeans. The “puppet designer” Oliver App may have had something to do with the mask Merlyn wears, which lends a sense of mystery and humor to the character.
Brian Marshall uses vocal inflections to perfection in his sing-songy, comedic portrayals of Merlyn and Pellinore.
With the latter, Marshall conveys such tension and nervous energy, you get the feeling Pellinore will burst like a bubble any moment. Meanwhile, Marshall’s thick-voiced, sneaky Merlyn sounds comedic but wise in a mischevious sort of way.
Roderick O’Toole deftly conveys all the traits of King Arthur, imbuing him with a philosophical, thoughtful air, a fair-mindedness, a touching humility, an enthusiastic, boyish idealism and naivete and a sense of being torn between his friendship to Lancelot and his love of Guenevere, his desire to unite Britian as a civilized kingdom and his loyalty to his love.
O’Toole’s Arthur can be commanding with the simple snap of a finger, but he never comes across as dictatorial, high and mighty or mean.
As Guenevere, Taylor Short also makes palpable the queen’s conflicting feelings and gives her a spirited personality.
O’Toole has a lovely chemistry with Short.
As Lancelot, Robert Head’s chemistry with her is even better. The song “If Ever I Would Leave You” carries a loving tenderness and sincerity.
The upbeat “The Lusty Month of May” starts off rushed and lethargic. But it picks up considerably in energy and the actors give the song the necessary vitality.
Head’s Lancelot starts out stuck up but ends up with a touching passion toward the queen.
Tyler Coy’s evil Mordred has an understated dark, insinuating playfulness.
We’d be remiss not to mention the lad Tom of Warrick, a young boy who promises Arthur he’ll carry on his vision of Camelot as a knight.
Part of Jacques Brault’s approach involves keeping the boy (an eager-to-please, always attentive Colin Frothingham) on-stage throughout, as though Tom were watching Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table concept from the shadows.
Frothingham’s constant presence on-stage serves another important purpose. It makes it easier to re-enact moments from Arthur’s youth.
We’re not as naïve as Arthur; we know “Camelot,” a state of bliss where everything is peaceful and perfect, won’t be achieved anytime soon.
But the youngster’s sincere promise to Arthur leaves us with hope that future leaders like him will strive toward a better society.

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at akrause@norwalkreflector.com.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Camelot"
WHEN: July 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24 and 25. 7:30 p.m. weeknights and Saturday as well as 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Notre Dame College's Regina Hall, 4545 College Road, South Euclid.
HOW MUCH: $18 for adults, $16 for seniors (60 and older) and $16 for students (25 and younger with valid ID). Call the box office at 216.771.5862.