Imagine you could get inside Tennessee Williams’ head. More specifically, imagine you could witness one of his nightmares—a nearly three-hour-long one after an ingestion of LSD. What you’d see would likely resemble the playwright’s Camino Real, or at least Camino Real as envisioned by director extraordinaire Jessica Kubzansky at Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court.

Camino Real (pronounced CAmino REal) made its Broadway debut in 1953, halfway between Williams’ early hits (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo) and his later classics (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird Of Youth, The Night Of The Iguana), and was a big fat flop, lasting only 60 performances. With Casanova, Lord Byron and Don Quixote among the characters visiting what Williams described as “a tropical seaport that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Vera Cruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans,” audiences didn’t know what to make of Camino Real. The play’s Sydney Greenstreet-esque narrator, Gutman, describes its gypsies, street cleaners, fascist police, starving bums, loan sharks, street vendors, prostitutes, and other assorted “guests” and “passengers” as “suffer[ing] from extreme fatigue… All of them have a degree or two of fever. Questions are passed amongst them like something illicit and shameful, like counterfeit money or drugs or indecent postcards…” Say what?

With a setup like this, it’s no wonder some Eisenhower ‘50s audience members walked out midway through, a number of them doubtless muttering things like “artsy fartsy mess” or “pretentious piece of crap” under their breaths.

If last night’s performance @ Boston Court is any example, there will be some even in 2011 who after the play’s ninety-minute-long first act won’t stick around for the second. Still, for the adventurous theatergoer, and more particularly for the diehard Tennessee Williams fan, Camino Real is well worth a look-see.

Make no mistake, there are times when you may find your mind drifting elsewhere, as when Marguerite Gautier (yes, that Marguerite Gautier aka Camille) says things like “Whom can we ask questions that torment us? ‘What is this place?’ ‘Where are we?’—a fat old man who gives sly hints that only bewilder us more, a fake of a gypsy squinting at cards and tea leaves. What else are we offered? The never-broken procession of little events that assure us that we and strangers about us are still going on! Where? Why?” To which this reviewer responds, “Huh?”

Still, what this Camino Real has going for it are things no other Camino Real has had before—its adventurous, multi-award-winning director, its daring cast of young actors, most of them BFA and MFA students at CalArts School Of Theatre, and the level of design and technical brilliance that few L.A.-area 99-seat-plan theaters other than Theatre @ Boston Court can offer. There have been other Camino Reals in the nearly six decades since it closed on Broadway, but probably none quite like this one.

To begin with, there is Dorothy Hoover’s stark, sprawling, surreal set design, with its roll-down metal security storefronts which open to reveal cluttered shops, and an upstage-center ladder ascending to a photo booth where visitors snap their own portraits before heading off to Terra Incognita—about as different a design from the original Broadway production’s apparently far more literal one as can be imagined.

A pair of street cleaners sweep in robotic synchronized movements as the audience enters, after which supporting characters make their trancelike entrances down one aisle of the theater, occasionally pausing, their bodies spasming, before continuing their trek. A hefty, bosomy whore named Rosita shoots out her tongue, snakelike, while offering “Love” in a raspy voice. A blind beggar stares out at what inner visions we can only imagine. A vendor sells tacos, a bearded young man offers rooms at the Ritz Men Only Hotel, a lean-muscled guitarist strums in the background. And into this wasteland appear a lost and bewildered Don Quixote and Sancho, a romantic Lord Byron, an aging Casanovoa, a lovelorn Camille, the exotic gypsy Esmeralda, and a young Golden Gloves boxer named Kilroy, forced by a heart the size of a baby’s head to retire far too early from the ring.

Camino Real is long, very long, perhaps a good deal too long for most contemporary theatergoers, especially after several Theatre @ Boston Court productions which lasted only the duration of its first act. And it is weird. Very weird. Still, it’s hard to deny the fascination in discovering Tennessee Williams at his least literal and most personal.

Performances are all-around terrific, from the four Equity cast members (Marissa Chibas as Marguerite Gautier, Tim Cummings as Casanova, Christina Frias as The Gypsy and Lady Mulligan, and Lenny Von Dohlen as Don Quixote, Baron de Charlus—think Blanche DuBois as a man, and Lord Mulligan) and from their gifted younger costars: Ashli Amari Adams, Michael Aurelio, Mitchell Colley, Jasmine Hughes, Shanna Malcolm, Murphy Martin, Frank Raducz, Jr., Christopher Rivas, Pete Sauber, Zachary Schwartz, Caitlin Teeley, Joseph Thomas, Kalean Ung, and Harley Ware. Aurelio (a romantic prince of a Lord Byron) and Rivas (a standout in a trio of roles including Sancho Panza) make the strongest impressions in a strapping young male ensemble that would undoubtedly have been given a big thumbs up by Tennessee himself.

  Chris Chiquet and Sallie Merkel

Assistant director/male swing Chris Chiquet has been playing Kilroy since Matthew Goodrich suffered an unfortunate injury on opening night (though fortunately not before earning raves for his performance). As for last-minute sub Chiquet, his work as Kilroy is absolutely riveting. Not only did the Cal State Long Beach grad learn the part virtually overnight, his scenes as the play’s sole realistic character (particularly opposite a luminescent Ung as Esmeralda) crackle with a refreshing authenticity mostly absent in the heightened world which surrounds him.

At the performance reviewed here, the role of observer-commentator-conductor Gutman, a part normally played by (judging from production stills) a lean, sexy, bearded, underwear-clad Brian Tichnell, was covered by the sleek, sexy, smooth-skinned, vevet-clad Sallie Markel (normally the Marguerite understudy), transforming the role from hot hetero-male to seductive lesbian to stunning effect, one perhaps not to be repeated.

Camino Real’s design team is completed, brilliantly, by costume designer Silvanne E.B. Park, sound designer Patrick Janssen, music composer Kwan Fai Lam, lighting designer Ellie Rabinowitz, and properties artisan Christian Cummings, all with CalArts connections. Choreographic whiz Ameenah Kaplan has staged an exciting, pulsating, high energy dance sequence that Tennessee Williams could not have conjured up even in his wildest dreams.

There will be those who will absolutely love Theatre @ Boston Court’s production of Camino Real, those who won’t stay past the first act, and those (the majority I think) who’ll stick around till the end—with decidedly mixed feelings but nonetheless glad that they made the journey. You can guess which camp I’m in.

Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.
–Steven Stanley
February 24, 2011
Photo (top): Ed Krieger

Comments are closed.