Ron Campbell spends a lot of time onstage by himself. Though the gifted comedic actor has enlivened many a recent ensemble piece at CalShakes and ACT, he is best known for his one-man show, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, and has done a long string of other solo shows, from Shylock to The Bone Man of Benares. "I like to go back and forth," he says. "I think the ensemble pieces keep you sane, they keep a certain keenness to your work, and the one-man shows give you a sense of self you can't get otherwise." Campbell's affinity for solo work has had a powerful effect on more than just his professional life: He first spied his future wife in the audience through his spyglass in the Buckminster Fuller show, and met her by chance shortly thereafter.
The Aurora Theatre Company winds down its thirteenth season with Campbell in yet another solo piece, this one written especially for him. Playwright and historian Carol Wolf wrote The Thousandth Night more than a decade ago after seeing Campbell in a one-man version of A Tale of Two Cities. Since the play debuted in 1993 in Southern California, he has toured with it periodically from Scotland to Israel, but though both the writer and actor are based in the Bay Area, it hasn't been seen locally until now. Original director Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director of the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena, is directing this production as well.
"What Jessica does is give me areas to play in, more like jazz and a little bit less like classical," Campbell says. "I always think blocking is for blockheads, and in a one-man show I have the option, if someone has a candy wrapper over there and the fourth wall's down, to go over there. I'm on a one-man crusade to banish the fourth wall from the theater."
As the name implies, The Thousandth Night is inspired by The 1001 Nights, but set in occupied Paris in 1943. Campbell plays Guy de Bonheur, a French burlesque performer from the Cafe Scheherazade, whose death train to Buchenwald derails -- and he puts on an impromptu performance for the gendarmes who are guarding the prisoners until the next train comes, performing his troupe's adaptations of tales from The Arabian Nights with scant props from his suitcase to try to demonstrate that he's falsely accused of purveying subversive material. In the course of the show Campbell portrays 38 different characters, as de Bonheur captures not just the figures from the tales but also his absent colleagues who portrayed them.
"So there's a lot of levels that it works on," Campbell says. "It's the guy trying to save his life àla Scheherazade trying to save her life by weaving tales." The audience itself represents the gendarmes he's playing to, so Aurora's intimate theater is perfect for the piece, Campbell says. "When I first came to the Bay Area I did a play called Benefactors here, and I'm just looking around the space going, This is the dream space I've been looking for.'"
The Thousandth Night opens for previews Friday at the Aurora Theatre (2081 Addison St., Berkeley) and runs through July 24. Tickets: AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.
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