Chicago Theater Review: CAMINO REAL (Goodman)

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by Dan Zeff on March 14, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

REAL GENIUS OR REAL CLUNKER?

Tennessee Williams wrote at least 10 plays that are more accessible and commercially viable than his Camino Real (pronounced CA-mino Reel). Even the most zealous playgoer likely has never seen a production of this perplexing symbolic drama. So when the Goodman Theatre placed the 1953 play on the company’s 2011-2012 schedule, anticipation ran high. Would the Goodman production uncover a hidden masterpiece, or would the revival validate that Camino Real deserved its obscurity in the Williams canon?

Spanish director Calixto Bieito, whom Goodman imported to direct, has carved out an international reputation for his experimental work; thus, the playbill credits him as author of a new version of the script, along with Marc Rosich. Bieito has discarded a slew of characters from the original, altered the play’s structure, and added material, including considerable simulated sex and gore. The production runs almost two hours with no intermission and by the final blackout the audience still can’t evaluate whether Williams wrote an important play or just a self-indulgent mish-mash. This is the director’s play, not the playwright’s.

Williams’ locale is a tropical seaport that could be anywhere in the world (this version locates the play in a Spanish setting), and neither the original nor the Bieito version has a coherent narrative. Williams injected a number of real-life and fictional characters into the play, like Don Quixote, Lord Byron, Esmeralda (Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Baron de Charlus (Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past), Jacques Casanova, and Marguerite Gautier (the tragic courtesan from the play Camille) who mingle with Williams’s own offbeat creations. The play may not tell a logical story but the overall feeling is one of pessimism and defeat.  The play is defined by Williams as “nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in,” which makes one sense that Williams could not have been a happy man when he wrote the piece.

The original play was divided into a prologue and 16 scenes, called “blocks,” with a man named Gutman who narrates and escorts the audience from block to block. The Goodman staging omits the block format, so the action flows uninterrupted, with no connecting narrative tissue. Bieito’s adaptation does preserve much of the original text, especially the ripe poetic recitations that wash over the spectator’s ears like beautiful noise. Incidents come and go but nothing like a graspable plot emerges. This requires considerable patience from the audience and I’m sure a significant percentage of viewers will give up on the show a few minutes into the evening, hostile to a play that seems arbitrary, unfocussed, and often distasteful in its gross sex, bloodshed, general atmosphere of cruelty, and occasional vomiting.

A central figure in the play is Kilroy (Antwayn Hopper), the omnipresent American figure from World War II, portrayed here as a black prizefighter trying to brazen out a life in a downward spiral. Kilroy is humiliated by Gutman, who forces him to wear a clown suit. Kilroy also seduces Esmeralda and ends up with his chest slashed open (all of this in the original script but with a gloss of violence on the Goodman stage).

Bieito has discarded Williams’ specific directions for the basic set, instead opting for a backdrop of a prison-like floor to rafter grillwork (by Rebecca Ringst). The stage is often bare except for cavorting characters, but periodically there are dazzling lighting effects (by James F. Ingalls), notably a gigantic and spectacular arrangement of gaudy neon signs that descends from above. In Bieito’s vision, the Camino Real is a bleak state of mind, a dreamlike (or nightmarish) location that drives characters to seek an escape, to anywhere away from this claustrophobic and brutal place.

The Goodman ensemble certainly gives its all to realize Bieito’s vision. The cast includes many of the area’s most familiar performers, including David Darlow as Casanova, Matt DeCaro (especially chilling as the menacing Gutman), Marilyn Dodds Frank as Marguerite Gautier, Mark Montgomery as Lord Byron, Barbara E. Robertson as the ostentatiously sluttish prostitute Rosita, and Jacqueline Williams as the blind singer La Madrecita de los Perdidos.

The production imported Chicago favorite Andre DeShields to play the simpering decadent aristocrat Baron de Charlus. The baron has a small role in the original but this revival inflates the character with new material, topped by a grotesque scene in which the masochistic baron is sodomized and finally strangled by a police officer (Jonno Roberts) in a very tough scene to watch. The baron is restored to life near the end of the show (not in the original), allowing DeShields a strong song-and-dance number. The rest of the cast, working very hard to give concrete presence to their characters’ ambiguous personalities and actions, consists of Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann as the Gypsy, Travis Knight as the Survivor who bloodily does not survive, Monica Lopez as Esmeralda, and Michael Medeiros as the Dreamer. The costume credits belong to Ana Kuzmanic and the sound design and composition to Richard Woodbury.

It would have been nice to attend a revival of Camino Real directed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls. I suspect Falls would display a respect for Williams’ original that Bieito sacrifices for his own bizarre take on the show. Unquestionably, this is a demanding project, technically, thematically, and maybe spiritually. It invites, even requires, interpretive risk taking. Goodman earns the highest props for going out on an artistic and commercial limb to present the show. But for all of Bieito’s directorial flamboyance, I would have much preferred a production that came closer to Williams’s highly personal vision. Who knows when we will have another chance to assess just how good, or defective, a play Williams wrote?

photos by Liz Lauren

Camino Real
Goodman Theatre
ends on April 8, 2012
for tickets, visit Goodman

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Darren Rogers April 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I’m appalled by this review. The initial problem is that the author here is trying to rationalize a truly surreal play. This play, even in its original construction, is not designed to give a clear and cohesive story, there is nothing linear in the text. Therefore, audience members looking for a typical set up will be disappointed unless they open themselves up to the possibility that not all stories have the same arrangement (thank God). As for the “gross sex, bloodshed, general atmosphere of cruelty, and occasional vomiting”, Bieito is working to manifest a truly honest piece that embodies the aforementioned quotation by Williams, which is why there are portions of his memoir and poetry fused into the production (a point that this critic neglected to note). Overall, the play is highly innovative and it is sad that so many are taking Bieito’s unique approach for granted. If people desire to get a play-by-play of the original and not be shocked or disturbed or moved in anyway then they should just sit at home and read the play. But even there, you won’t find the standard plot that is obviously so highly valued. It is time surrealist art and existentialism be allowed to move into the twenty first century.

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Carolyn Hoerdemann December 5, 2015 at 8:45 am

Thank you Darren! Love the gypsy.

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