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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
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
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
Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $26 to $38. Performances
continue to July 25.
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