By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
Tennessee Williams was in many ways a man before his time and a man deeply concerned about his place in American theatre history. Following the successes of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo, Williams turned his attention to a project that dealt with man’s mortality and the search for meaning in life.
Delving deep into his imagination, he invented a dystopian, quasi Spanish-speaking Western town on the edge of a desert in which characters of his own creation mixed with historical figures and some of the great characters of literature. He titled this work Camino Real and insisted that it be pronounced by its Anglicized name. It bowed on Broadway in 1953, but was so unusual and so unlike anything else being produced at the time, the production closed after a mere 60 performances, a rare misfire at that time for the playwright. (Summer and Smoke, his previous low performer, had closed after 102 performances in 1948.)
Now in its third season and specializing in presenting the repertoire of Williams’ works, the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company under the helm of co-artistic directors Augustin Correro and Nick Shackleford is presenting an extraordinary remounting of Camino Real at the Marigny Opera House for two final weekends, ending on Sunday, August 19.
Correro serves as the director of this unusual two-act piece with 22 actors carrying off an even-larger number of written roles. The cast is headed by veteran performers Carol Sutton, who portrays Marguerite “Camille” Gautier, the heroine of “Lady of the Camellias” by Alexander Dumas the younger, and James Howard Wright, who plays Williams’ conception of famed lover Jacques Casanova. Casanova, mellowed in his old age, expresses his undying love for Camille, but the courtesan attempts to flee his entreaties and the overwhelming angst of Camino Real.
Christopher Robinson plays Kilroy, a down-on-his-luck boxer, who finds himself transported to this weird way station and who attempts to escape from its strange dominion over him. Among the many bizarre residents there, he is confronted by a Gypsy (Mary Pauley), whose daughter Esmeralda of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame (Rachel Rodriguez) undergoes a curious recurring ceremony during which her virginity is restored by the moon.
The hotelier of the Siete Mares (pronounced as “sh*tty mares”) is Gutman (Roger Magendie), the character played famously by Sydney Greenstreet in the movie “Casablanca.” He serves as a device to separate the scenes that are known as blocks along the Camino Real. On the opposite side of the town square is The Ritz, which boldly announces it is for “Men Only” and in the center is a fountain that has dried up.
John Lavin portrays a threatening military police officer with an affected Spanish accent, while Lin Gathright (a.k.a. Bunny Love) plays several roles including those of Prudence, a woman who wants out of Camino Real, as well as a medical instructor called upon to perform an autopsy on Kilroy, who has a heart “as big as a baby’s head.”
Other noted performers include noted director Beau Bratcher and Alison Logan as Lord and Lady Mulligan, Robert Mitchel as both Don Quixote and the Baron de Charlus and Nathaniel Twarog as both Sancho Panza and a nurse. LaKesha Glover performs well as Olympe, while Stephen Stanley portrays both A. Ratt and the Fugitivo clerk among with other smaller roles.
The interior of the Marigny Opera House with its high white interior walls is perfectly suited for the many video projections from James Lanius, who also contributed to the designs of monitors placed strategically on stage. Also impressive is the original music and sound design by Michael Gillette and Shackleford. The sound heightens the tension and adds to a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations. The time involved in rendering these designs is obvious and should not be ignored.
Also, quite enjoyable are the original costume designs executed by Lee Kyle, which help flesh out the characters and add an air of mystery or an element of fear to them as in the case of faceless, menacing streetcleaners, whose job it is to clear bodies from the blocks of Camino Real.
Correro’s hand in directing his actors in this, the largest work his company has undertaken to date, should also be commended. Williams intended this work to be an examination of his life and the times during which he was living as the real blends with the surreal and fact intercedes upon fiction. Oftentimes the fourth wall is broken for the performers to interact with audience members, dressing them or passing out handouts.
The players speak through Williams’ poetic language, but in Camino Real there is an overwhelming feeling of dread expressed through the voice of Kilroy that all that he has done in life will not be understood or appreciated.
Like Williams, this play is complex and constructed upon many layers, some of which can readily be understood and others of which must be plumbed in order to gain insight into his intent. This play expresses some of the author’s doubts as to how history would record him and also reflects on the tyranny of McCarthyism and the practice of blacklisting that was prevalent during the era.
There is no chance for contentment in this outpost and escape occurs irregularly. Love is fleeting and life is hard on the many blocks of Camino Real. Yet, the possibility that the waters of renewal might one day flow again in the town’s central fountain suggests some hope for the hapless residents of this town erected from the mind of one of America’s great playwrights.
Camino Real continues its performances at the Marigny Opera House, 715 St. Ferdinand Street in New Orleans, LA with Friday, Saturday and Sunday night shows at 8:00 p.m., extended through August 19 with a special added 8:00 performance on Thursday, August 17. For tickets click here.