Monday, March 7, 2011

Douglas Messerli "End of the Road" (on Tennessee Williams' Camino Real)

by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams Camino Real / The Theater at Boston Court, Pasadena, California / the production I saw was on Sunday March 6, 2011

I have always greatly admired the works of Tennessee Williams, having even chosen to publish one of his lesser—and undeservedly ignored—plays in Mac Wellman's and my large drama anthology, From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995 of 1998. That play, The Gnädiges Fraülein of 1966, is perhaps one of his most absurd works, but worth a rereading. More recently, moreover, approaching this centennial year of his birth, I have been fortunate to see some of his earliest, for more romantically-inspired pieces, that has helped to me once again reassess this great dramatist.

After my own reinvestigation of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2009, I was able to see a credible, if not entirely satisfying, revival of The Glass Menagerie, performed in New York in 2009 and in Los Angeles in 2010; Vieux Carré, reconceived by the Wooster Group, a play begun early in Williams' career and finished late; and, now, the seldom produced Camino Real of 1953, in a delightful, if not perfect, production by The Theater at Boston Court, co-produced by the CALARTS School of Theater, with most of the roles by CALARTS students.

The fact that this is primarily a "student" production should not make anyone wince; for years CALARTS has produced some of the most interesting of productions presented in Los Angeles, and the school has spun off numerous younger groups, including the wonderfully inventive Poor Dog Group, whose 2010 production of Brewsie and Willie gets my nomination for the best LA-area play of that year!

Having said that, I can well understand why the 16 blocks (a one act version contains only 10 blocks) of the full-length Camino Real—pronounced deliberately, with Williams' instructions, in the American way, Cámino Rēal, suggesting the real world as opposed to a fantastical one—is seldom revived. Williams' play is a series of fantastic and terrifying scenes that resemble nothing else in theatrical history. Without knowing that I was a critic (we did not speak at all before the first act of 90 minutes), the woman next to me said, in the intermission, "I hope you're going to tell me what this is all about." I assured her I would try.

But, of course, Williams' poetic expressionism cannot be that simply transformed into narrative explanation. A great part of this phantasmagoric world into which he has enwrapped his audience, is better just being experienced instead of analyzed. Indeed there is no true comprehension for the conglomerate of lost souls trapped at the Royal Road, including a wild collection of individuals from time and space, most notably, Don Quixote (Lenny von Dohlen) (whose Sancho has abandoned him upon his entry into the plaza); Marguerite "Camille" Gautier (excellently realized by Marissa Chibas) (the famed courtesan who in Verdi's La Traviata and numerous other versions dies a horrible death of tuberculosis); Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (the noted nobleman lover, more commonly known simply as Casanova); George Gordon Noel Byron (the romantic poet, lover of both Percy Shelly and his wife); Palamède de Guermantes (the Baron de Charlus of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past); and, most notably perhaps, Kilroy (the World War II legend who had been everyone before all the others). Add to these the permanent denizens of this flophouse of a town, the near to stage-manager Gutman (named after Sydney Greenstreet's character in Casablanca); a gypsy fortune-teller and her perpetually virgin daughter, Esmeralda, a pawnshop owner, Rosita the Whore; a blind mother; an effeminate waiter; the proprietor of the Ritz Men Only hotel; Abdullah; Tranny Streetperson (who is literally shot down in the street for fraternizing with others); and the horrifying, ever-present street cleaners, and you have an idea of the zoo-like atmosphere of the 16 scenes that reveal, little by little, the hell that is Camino Real. It is, obviously, a place of horror which will remind some of Tahirir square, Tiananmen Square, or the streets of Tripoli—a place where authorities do not want one to gather.

Except perhaps for Kilroy, all of these individuals share outrageous exploits in love and larger-than-human lives. One might suggest they have all ended up here, from where there is no easy escape, simply because of their gargantuan lusts, their refusals to live life an any level of what might be described as normality. But even in Camino Real, in an endless now with no possibility of redemption, they refuse to give up. A large part of the relationship between Casanova and Camille concerns his insistence that they admit their deep love, and her refusal to give up her many drugs: including cocaine and kif, but also sex and outright infatuation. Time and again, she is robbed, raped, and left for dead, but each time she rises to fall again, unable to stop the cycle of her dramatic spiral into death.

By the time Casanova (wonderfully played by Tim Cummings) has reached this dead end, he is too old to live up to his reputation, and too poor to even maintain—despite his attempt to keep up his appearance in a gold embroidered coat—his lifestyle. By curtain's end he has been thrown out of the best hotel (the Siete Mares run by Gutman) and is forced to take refuge in the cold, narrow bed of the Ritz Men Only, ready to share even that with the equally rejected Kilroy.

One by one we come to see that each character in this god-forsaken place has been eaten up by life and circumstance. They are the grotesques of the world, hardly its heroes, people who, as in nearly every Williams play, have lived too much of their lives in dreams, now like Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire, forced to pay the piper.

Only three of the play's characters have any potentiality to escape or redeem themselves. The gypsy woman's daughter has at the least the symbolic possibility of regaining her humanity by undergoing a dance with each full moon that restores her virginity, after which everyone attempts to take it away from her again. But this time round she has chosen the American oaf Kilroy (capably played, in the production I saw by a stand-in, Chris Chiquet) as her lover, the man, who, because of his big heart—"the size of the head of a baby"—has been advised to give up sex, cannot complete the act. And, in that sense, she is freed. She remains a virgin, at least temporarily, falling in love with the memory of his possible sincerity. Swept up into death by the street cleaners, Kilroy returns to her, but she can hear him only as a mewling cat.

The play begins with the arrival of the biggest dreamer of them all, Don Quixote, who like all the others is tired and lonely. Yet Quixote, as we all know, cannot be quelled, and after a good sleep lasting the length of the play, he arises to find a new replacement for Sancho. That he should find the now "nonexistent" (as he may have been always) Kilroy, is perfect. For Kilroy has been throughout a bigger fool than even Quixote, battling the windmills as his enemy. Made to dress like a clown, Kilroy, a disturbingly innocent "patsy" who has lost his championship status, his lover, and, later, the mementos of that life, at least knows the difference between past, present, and future, changing the graffiti of "Kilroy Was Here," to "Kilroy Is Here," and back to past tense as he joins Quixote in his exit.

The only way to leave Camino Real in this production is to climb a small ladder into what appears to be a booth for camera snapshots, as if each has to face the reality of his image before he can escape. For these vain and lost individuals it is a frightening possibility, fraught with all the perils of losing, on top of everything else, one's soul and sanity, that keeps them from attempting the unknown. But with Quixote's faith to support him, Kilroy takes the leap and, as Quixote declares "the violets push through the rock."

Camino Real is not an easy play, either for its cast nor the audience, but it is a beautifully poetic screed, like so many of Williams' works, for those who have lost their ways through their endless desires to live a full life, as well as a prayer that the sinful may not be forgotten by those who consider themselves as among the saintly.

Los Angeles, March 7, 2011

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