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Chicago by John Olson

Camino Real
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Bring It On

Camino Real
Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann
As a seldom-performed work of Tennessee Williams, envisioned by a major European director who has rarely worked in the U.S. and performed by a stellar cast, the Goodman's production of Camino Real can't be dismissed. It's a bold, risk-taking staging that much of the time fails to land, but also leaves indelible visual images and conveys provocative Williamsian themes. Camino Real is atypical of Williams's canon in its non-realistic structure and lack of a linear plot or fully developed characters. It's a genre-bending piece—more poetry than drama, though there are characters that speak and interact with each other—but it is thoroughly Williams in its message decrying the inhumanity of people to each other.

Camino Real is, according to program notes, "a mythical town in an unnamed Latin American country," but is presented here as the nightmare of a writer who is dressed to look much like Williams. Called "The Dreamer" (Michael Medeiros), he opens the play in a drunken, vomiting rant and upon his passing out, we're taken inside his dream of this dangerous, remote town, surrounded by desert. Exit is difficult and accomplished only through the occasional flights of an airplane they call "El Fugitivo." An assortment of misfits, societal castoffs and crooks live there, and director Calixto Bieito (who authored this "new version" with Marc Rosich) presents it non-literally. The mostly bare stage includes chain link fencing and ladders on which the actors move acrobatically. Rebecca Ringst's set sometimes yields to a stunning display of neon lights and bar signs (which are, strangely, mostly of American beers, suggesting a border town rather than a remote Latin-American village). The only literal element suggesting the play's setting at the hotel Siete Mares is a luggage cart. Through the lobby of the hotel, managed by the cruel Gutman (a devilish Matt DeCaro), pass a variety of has-beens, lost souls and those who would prey on them.

The denizens include characters of Williams' creation as well as others from earlier literature. The charming but aged Jacques Casanova (David Darlow) romances an elegant middle-aged Marguerite Gautier (Marilyn Dodds-Frank) who later dumps him for the sexy young Abdullah (Travis Knight) who leaves and degrades her after a session of onstage simulated sex. The cuckolded Casanova is physically humiliated by men in the village as well. A former champion boxer named Kilroy (Antwayn Hopper), still in his boxing garb, has inexplicably arrived in the town and is trying desperately to get out. He sells his golden gloves to get money to leave, but spends it instead on the chance to deflower the gypsy Esmeralda (Monica Lopez), whose mother (Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann) is able to magically restore her virginity each night. The hotel's guests also include a wealthy older man (the charismatic Andre DeShields) looking for rough receptive anal sex and bondage (simulated on stage) which a corrupt cop (Jonno Roberts) is happy to provide. More conventional sex is offered by a prostitute named Rosita (Barbara Robertson, effectively playing against type in a slinky tight costume). In the play's only note of hopefulness, the poet Lord Byron (Mark L. Montgomery) is determined to leave to town, as he rejects the depravity of Camino Real in favor of a more romantic vision of life. Perhaps he's just closing his eyes to the ugliness though: the Dreamer later suggests as much by quoting T.S. Eliot's line that "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." The dominant mood is of despair. Camino Real's hotel recalls (and maybe it inspired) the Eagles' song "Hotel California," a Hell from which you can check out, but never leave. The defeated who reside there are overseen by La Madrecita de los Perdidos (Little Mother of the Lost Ones), played by Jacqueline Williams, who delivers a poetic eulogy for one of the fallen.

It's a bleak enough vision as a picture of Hell, but in light of Williams's quote that it represents "nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in," it's even more grim and challenging to accept. Further, though Bieito's staging is highly and stunningly visual at points—Williams' verbal images of human hearts being torn from their bodies and kicked about is later reinforced visually on stage, for example—the piece demands close listening throughout. Even at that, the inclusion of several songs sung in Spanish makes it difficult for the non-multi-lingual among us to keep focus. The unexpected structure of the piece—without any clear dramatic arc—makes it hard to set expectations for where the play is going. We may feel as trapped as the people in this town, though some in the audience found their own "Fugitivo" and left before the two-hour intermissionless play ended.

Even so, the presentation of Williams' observations on the many ways humans are cruel to each other—and particularly to those who have lost their wealth, sex appeal or power—leaves an indelible impression. Students of Williams' work will find similarities to the treatment of characters like Blanche DuBois, Alexandra Del Lago Chance Wayne here and will want to include this production in their study. Additionally, Bieito's bold direction and the stagecraft—including James F. Ingalls' brilliant lighting design and Ana Kuzmanic's costumes that are otherworldly yet grounded in reality—makes this production a valuable experience for the serious theater-lover, student or professional.

Williams said this play would be better on the stage than the page, and I imagine he'd be happy with the way Bieito has visualized it, but I still suspect some time invested in reading the text before seeing this production would help audience comprehension. There's so much going on verbally (even when the words are in English and not accompanied by visual activity onstage), it's a lot to take in going in to it cold. It has its rewards, mostly that of total immersion into Tennessee Williams' vision and voice, but it asks a lot of the audience, and those rewards may not be sufficient for many in light of the production's occasional lack of clarity, graphic sex, violence and bodily functions and its general bleakness of vision. For others, Bieito's uncompromising presentation of the mirror which Williams holds up to us to see humanity's worst traits will be an invaluable contribution to the appreciation of this American playwright's work.

Camino Real will be performed through April 8, 2012, in the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org , the Box Office or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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