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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood where
the straight way was lost
-- this excerpt Canto I of Dante's Inferno inscribed on the red-orange scrim curtain of James Noone's set for Camino Real are precursors of a technicolor fantasy view of the hellish world peopled by mysterious gypsies, loan sharks and various characters from literature and long past and recent folklore.
Tennessee Williams introduced the published version of Camino Real as "the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream." That dream is conjured up by the first of the playwright's borrowed-from-literature characters, Don Quioxote. It is a lonely hell of a place terrorized by trigger happy policemen and an eerie group of street cleaners who are forever ready to cart bodies off to an even eerier laboratory where they will be dissected. Though everyone wants to leave Camino Real, the vast unknown desert that stretches beyond the exit at the top of the Plaza's square prevents them from following the play's credo: "Make voyages! Attempt them! There's nothing else!" The erratic non-scheduled Fugitivio shuttle (an apt metaphor for these fugitives from dead end despair) lands so briefly that only a lucky few manage to take advantage of this one alternative to the single and forbidding exit.
The "citizens" of Williams's dead end "blocks" weren't the only ones anxious to leave when Camino Real opened at the Broadway National Theater in 1953. The play's hallucinatory complexity so puzzled and disturbed audiences that many who came walked out and not enough bought tickets to keep it running for more than sixty performances. Critics came and stayed, but only to pan it with comments like Walter Kerr's scathing "the worst play yet written by the best playwright of this generation."
The Williamstown Theatre Festival's latest and immensely energetic revival of this generally under appreciated play may still confuse audiences, at least during the first third. But Director Nicholas Martin and his immense and immensely talented company have transformed the play's theatricality into an unforgettable spectacle that deflects its more than occasional inaccessibility. As each dream sequence unfolds, the purposeful bedlam on stage and throughout the aisles make increasing sense. The characters sort themselves out and we root for the central character, an American innocent abroad to become the squire Don Quixote seeks as his companion out of Camino Real and through the unknown mountains. (Sancho Panza undeceived by the carnival brightness of the town left his knight rather than risk entrapment).
The extent to which this production engages us in the characters as well as Mr. Martin's spectacle, owes much to Ethan Hawke's spot-on portrayal of Kilroy. Named for the World War II icon, this Kilroy is an American "everyman" who has wandered into town, his loneliness and ache for by-gone glories fortified by a picture of his "one true woman" and the golden boxing gloves won before his heart "larger than a baby's head" gave out. Hawke, as fast on his feet as the show generally, perfectly embodies the agility and innocence of the American spirit. His excellent projection and wonderful physicality should assuage all who worry that film work will dilute an actor's effectiveness on a live stage.
While Hawke has the play's pivotal role, the other key players also lend strength to the production:
Jeffrey Duncan Jones conveys just enough malevolent manipulativeness as Gutman the proprietor of the Sieta Mares Hotel who also announces the play's "blocks" throughout the proceedings. Richard Easton provides the right degree of worn out sensuality to the role of the play's man in black, Jacques Casanova -- as does his female counterpart and lover, Blair Brown as Marguerite Gautier (from Camille ). Her "I'm one of those aging voluptuaries. . . I used to be paid for pleasure and now I have to pay" is reminiscent of other lost souls like Blanche Du Bois.
Christian Carmago is exceptionally effective both as Baron de Charlus and Lord Byron. The lovely Hope Davis is at once ethereal and earthy sex kitten as the Gypsy's daughter Esmeralda who becomes a virgin as often as the fairy tale soup bowl that repeatedly refills itself and the golden goose with its endless supply of magical eggs. The scene between her and Kilroy when both whisper "I am sincere" is one of the evening's tenderest. Esmeralda's prayer "God bless all two-time losers who are likely to lose once more" tugs mightily at the heart strings.
It's impossible to comment on everyone in a cast of forty. The fact that some who normally command much more of the stage says much for the artistic appeal of this company which draws "name" players to tiny parts. Mary Lou Rosato, for example, who I thought would play the Gypsy has opted for the less splashy role of the mostly silent blind matriarch of the town, La Madrecita de los Perdidos. Kristine Nielson who actually plays the gypsy, couldn't be better.
James Noone who designed Nicholas Martin's epic-sized revival of Dead End a few seasons ago has truly outdone himself here, as has Michael Krass in the costume department and those wizards of lighting and sound, Kevin Adams and Kurt B. Kellenberger. No mention of the outstanding stagecraft would be complete without mentioning Peter Golub's original and mood-enhancing incidental music and Hernando Cortez's dynamic choreography.
The recent Broadway production (also in London) of Tennessee Williams never-produced early play, Not About Nightingales, is certain to seed a spurt of revivals of his lesser known plays. (CurtainUp's New York and DC associate, Les Gutman reports that another Camino Real revival is in the offing in DC and will shortly review an Off-Broadway reprise of Small Craft Warnings ). Yet, much as I admire Williams, claims that Camino Real is Tennessee Williams best play strike me as somewhat hyperbolic. It is indeed a fine example of his extraordinary gift for language. (Who but Williams could combine optimism and symbolism as in Don Quixote's final "The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks?") It is also a play that affords those on the stage side of the footlight a splendid opportunity for theatrical excellence -- an opportunity which Mr. Martin and his crafts and acting team have successfully run with. In their hands, Don Quixote's tortured and at times convoluted dream is certainly a marvel to behold.
CurtainUp's Overview of Tennessee Williams' career
Not About Nightingales review
A review of a previous WTF epic directed by Nicholas Martin and designed by James Noone-- Dead End
In his Afterword to Camino Real, written after the Broadway production, Tennessee Williams reflected: " The printed script of a play is hardly more than an architect's blueprint of a house not yet built or built and destroyed. The color, the grace and levitation, the structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings, suspended like fitful lightning in a cloud, these things are the play, not words on paper, nor thoughts and ideas of an author, those shabby things snatched off basement counters at Gimbel's. "