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This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 21,

1999. All rights reserved.

Simon Saltzman on Tennessee Williams

Set designer Harry Feiner’s haunting evocation of a

decaying town is the first thing we see as we enter the Shakespeare

Festival’s new Kirby Theater. As the houselights dim, it is the task

of composer Nicholas Kitsopoulos to arrest our auditory nerves with

beguiling, Latin American-influenced music that suggests both the

imperceptible dangers and the impenetrable desires that propel the

strange and elusive world of Tennessee Williams’ most baffling and

controversial play "Camino Real." Here also lighting designer

Steven Rosen bathes this unspecified desert or tropical location south

of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in atmospherics so intoxicating as to block

out any sense of the world as we know it.

If the sense of being in another world doesn’t grab you from the outset

in Bonnie J. Monte’s stunning staging of Williams’ rarely-produced

1953 play, you can expect the arrival of none other than Don Quixote

de la Mancha and his disillusioned lackey, Sancho Panza, to do the

job. Our eyes follow them as they wearily make their way down the

aisle and into a corrupt, hostile, and brutal place where the only

hope for survival is an eternal search.

Deserted by his heretofore faithful companion, Quixote falls asleep.

And he dreams. "Camino Real" is his dream — a disturbing

pageant wherein despair and desire, decadence and romance, are jumbled

up with the playwright’s own look into the darkly illuminated, mirror

of his own soul.

"Camino Real" has no more plot than a visit to the mall, no

more order than the first break in a game of billiards, and it jumps

from reality to dreams to memories like a visit to a psychoanalyst.

Yet in its labyrinthine structure, there are treasures to be gleaned,

not the least of which is the incomparable satiric wit of an extraordinarily

daring playwright. The wit comes in the existential musings and fantastical

reveries of poets and personified figments of the imagination that

ruefully attempt to transcend the ordinary and the heartless. Be aware

that Casanova, Camille, and Lord Byron are among these more curious

characters of "Camino Real."

The work’s satire comes with the arrival of the doomed young prizefighter,

Kilroy, an ordinary American whose only defense is bravado and childlike

innocence. He and a comically earthy gypsy woman, and her daughter

who becomes a virgin with every full moon, seek and secure their destiny

without regret.

It is no accident that in Monte’s almost three-hour production, which

boasts a cast of 34 (many playing multiple roles), we can feel the

passion and pleasure that drives her direction. Monte’s long-time

dream to explore Williams’ apocalyptic allegory is realized. She has

found an almost perfect cast and achieved the ideal tone and pace

for this multi-leveled play. Williams’ lust for both sacred and profane

love was always tempered with devilish humor and never with more relish

than in "Camino Real."

Williams’ eminently accessible text (described as inscrutable and

problematic by some), is quite simply his vision of destiny as seen

through the experience of ravaged victims seeking escape from a police

state. Monte’s direction honors both the playwright’s audacious spirit

and the anguish of the rueful characters he so rapturously conceived.

Although the action that takes place along the 16 blocks of the Camino

Real is bleak and horrific, all of it callously and matter-of-factly

observed by a overseer, narrator, and landlord named Gutman (Tom Brennan),

Williams’ penchant for naughty humor and his inimitable eloquence

consistently shine through. You could say it is a vision of hell with

a sense of humor.

This production looks richer and more fully conceptualized than any

play yet produced in the Shakespeare Festival’s new theater. The only

staging I had seen previously was the 1970 Lincoln Center revival

that starred Jessica Tandy, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Al Pacino, as

Kilroy. And I did not go to the Williamstown Festival production last

month (with Ethan Hawke as Kilroy), one of a sudden rash of four regional

productions taking place within a 12-month stretch, but somehow I

am glad to have rediscovered this masterpiece through Monte’s eyes.

Paul Molnar will break your heart as Kilroy. Unlike

the other characters that are prisoners of their emotions, the rebellious

Kilroy is forced to make the humiliating transformation from champ

to patsy. Molnar never loses touch with Kilroy’s brash, self-deceiving

optimism even as he is hounded and mistreated by the police, emotionally

and physically crippled by a failing heart as big a baby’s head, and

unable to compromise his love for his wife for a one-night stand with

a gypsy girl.

I was so moved and impressed by many individual performances in this

current production that a return visit for me is mandatory. If Don

Quixote is destined to sleep through the bulk of the play, his portrayer,

Edmond Genest, reappears briefly and poignantly as the sweetly depraved

Baron de Charles. Mark Elliot Wilson touchingly reflects the self-deception

of the dissipated old roue, Casanova. Although I question the too

freshly beautiful appearance of Pamela J. Gray as the courtesan Marguerite

(TK), her otherwise graceful performance was not without a pathetic

resonance.

Anne MacMillan was riotously raucous as the mercenary gypsy who makes

her outrageous prognostications over a microphone in the public square.

Opal Alladin was perkily insinuating as the gypsy’s veiled and newly

virginal daughter Esmeralda. And there isn’t a moment in Malcolm Tulip’s

turn as Lord Byron that you won’t feel the touch of the poet.

Monte’s direction of the seething cast that include street people,

carnival celebrants, mummers, passengers, pickpockets, vendors, and

uniformed guards, provides a brilliantly surreal frame for the netherworld

of "Camino Real." To Monte’s credit, the play’s abstract nature

is never compromised, but neither is the purity of each character’s

reality. Nothing that appears on any New Jersey stage this summer

should command your attention before this "Camino Real."

— Simon Saltzman

Camino Real, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Kirby

Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $26 to $38. Performances

continue to July 25.


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