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British fop by day, masked avenger by night

"We seek him here, we seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? That demmed, elusive Pimpernel."

— Sir Percy Blakeney

Why do so many heroes in our folklore wear masks, do good deeds, carve up the villains and disappear, name unknown, back into the shadows?

We have Batman, Zorro, Spiderman, V for Vendetta and — the prototype for them all — the Scarlet Pimpernel, a gallant swordsman of the French Revolution who will swash his buckler while warbling many a song.

Camelot Theatre's production of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" — with book and lyrics by Nan Knighton and music by Frank Wildhorn — will begin at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, with a performance to benefit Soroptimist International. A low-priced preview will be available Thursday, Dec. 1. The show officially opens Friday, Dec. 2, and runs through Dec. 31.

Romantic and comical, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" was a Tony-nominated Broadway success in the '90s.

It offers an answer to the aforementioned question, says actor Tim Homsley, who plays Sir Percy, with the fact that it asks its dashing hero "to face fears and do what's right in the face of overwhelming odds."

What exactly is a pimpernel? Turning to trustworthy and all-knowing Wikipedia, we learn that it's a tiny red flower, one that our hero draws when he signs his name on the mysterious and witty notes he leaves behind after rescuing aristocrats from the unduly harsh, final — and often unjust — punishment of the guillotine.

The play and novel were penned by Baroness Emmuska Orczy in 1903. The works became a success and resulted in many sequels over 35 years. British actor Leslie Howard ("Gone With the Wind") played the title role in the hit 1934 movie.

"I fell in love with the score when I first heard it," says the play's director, Livia Genise. "It has beautiful melodies, and the songs are gorgeous. There are three or four numbers that are especially memorable. The lyrics are witty, and the script is so well-written that it could stand alone as a play."

Camelot Theatre Company chooses its productions a year in advance, so this Robin Hood-like character has nothing to do with current cries for justice from the 99 percent and, Genise notes, "shows that the 1 percent isn't all bad."

The villain Chauvelin relentlessly seeks the head of the Pimpernel who, in daily life, is the mild-mannered English fop Sir Percy Blakeney. His French wife Margeurite doesn't know that her husband is a legendary superhero, and she is a former lover of Chauvelin.

"It's a powerhouse cast," says Darek Riley, who plays Chauvelin. "Livia has done a marvelous job of bringing home the period of the French Revolution." Riley is an acting and music student at Southern Oregon University.

"It's the French version of Zorro," Riley says. He also is the production's fight director (there's plenty of swordplay), who studied the art under John Toppo of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Homsley says playing the Pimpernel is a challenge for him.

"He has a lot more courage and charisma than I'm used to," he says, "with skill for amazing disguises and escapes."

Kelly Jean Hammond plays Marguerite, Roy Rains plays Tussaud, Linnea Jefferson plays Marie, Justin Williams plays Armand and Tom Weiner plays Robespierre. Choreography is by Presila Quinby.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows are set for 8 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m., including a Christmas Eve matinee Dec. 24.

Preview tickets cost $12. Tickets to the Soroptimist International benefit and all other performances cost $23, $21 for students and seniors. A pay-what-you-can performance is set for 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7.

Tickets can be purchased at www.camelottheatre.org or by calling 541-535-5250.