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A CurtainUp Review
Tennessee Williams isn’t all roses and regrets, longing and losing. He had his own cutting edge, a repudiation of realism abundantly evident in this lesser-known 1953 offering. An absurdist imitation, Camino Real closely resembles Genet’s The Balcony where, against the backdrop of repression and revolution, expressionistic characters pursue favorite phantoms. Random encounters dispel the loneliness that haunts each survivor: “The spirit of humanity has gone dry.”
It’s the perfect playground for controversial Spanish director Calixto Bieto, a showman who transforms the vast Goodman Theatre stage into a huge cage, occasionally brightened up by banks of neon signs, scintillating mirror balls and, later, a huge STOP sign in a town without an exit strategy. He also borrows from other Williams works, perhaps rightly not trusting in a text that feels episodic and insubstantial. Less laudably, he injects a coarse sensuality to even the slightest moments here. It’s one of several ways in which Bieto singles out characters who Williams expects to literally go with the flow.
For Williams “camino real” means dead end and, if it’s done well you can cut the desperation with a knife. Set in a plaza that adjoins an unspecified stretch of the old Spanish highway, where the action spreads across 16 blocks,“Camino Real combines symbolic citizens of a banana republic in a series of often mystifying and inevitably doomed encounters. (No one gets out of here alive, even though an erratic airship called “El Fugitivo” pretends to offer an escape.) These include two famous lovers, one fictional, one real. Marguerite Gautier, Dumas’ “lady of the camellias,” adores and betrays Giacomo Casanova, who, down on his luck, risks eviction from a five-star hotel to a buggy flophouse. We meet Lord Byron en route to death in Greece. There’s a cameo by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, (The play may well be Don Quixote’s dream but here he’s equated with the author in an alcoholic haze.) Finally, Kilroy, the main player, the stereotypical American traveler, is a former boxer with a bad heart who becomes the town’s “patsy.” He dons a clown suit, then engages in a semni-passionate encounter with the gypsy’s horny daughter.
The locals are just as dauntingly capricious and metaphorical–a garrulous gypsy and her daughter whose virginity is renewed by the new moon, a dreamer whose fantasies threaten the state, and a homosexual baron who, like many here, dies mysteriously and is wheeled away by gibbering street cleaners who serve as body disposers. Presiding over the dream-like doings is Gutman, the local despot who announces the blocks of the Camino Real as we tread them together.
What results is a very peculiar pageant, a petered-out play that, like the narrator spitting out his booze, almost chokes on its decadence. Williams pays a price for creating such a sweeping menagerie: No character lingers long enough to hold our interest, let alone our hearts. Fortunately, Bieto treats it as a fever dream, avoiding the jerky pace and clumsy transitions that can make the action seem all the more arbitrary. Our supposedly poetic tour guide, Matt DeCaro’s malevolently matter-of-fact performance as Gutman injects just a hint of lyrical urgency into his catalogue of doom. Antwayn Hopper’s muscular marvel of a Kilroy, Williams’ Alice in this wonderland, is accessibly ordinary but seldom conveys a sense of astonishment at the singular events around him. He just runs around a lot, showing off a perfectly sculpted statue-bod. Superb Chicago actors reconfirm their brilliance: Barbara Robertson’s opportunistic hooker, Marilyn Dodds Frank’s gauzy Marguerite Gauthier, Andre De Shields’ elegant Baron de Charlus, Mark L. Montgomery’s haunted Lord Byron, Jacqueline Williams’ cantina chanteuse, David Darlow’s epicene Casanova, and Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann’s gypsy with a horse laugh much like her author’s.
Another plus: This Camino Real is rich with songs, ballads and choruses that exploit the nostalgia for viejo Mexico at its mariachi-bubbling best. But there’s a limit to what even a magic maker like Bieto can do with this perversely precious play. Williams never settles into sentiment here — -a pity because that’s what he does best. As for the political overtones of this supposed protest against Joseph McCarthy and his Red-baiting witchhunt, it’s presented too impressionistically to have any impact. (In any case we don’t go to Williams for political insight.) We’re left with a catalogue of lonely, lost souls who seem to have wandered in from Williams’ better dramas.