Thursday, March 22, 2012

WITH NO WAY OUT - 'Camino Real' at The Goodman Theatre

I watched a couple of audience members get up and leave during a performance of Camino Real I recently attended at the Goodman Theatre a miniature, but meaningful exodus that should be a proud feather in the cap of Spanish director Calixo Bieito, making his gripping Chicago theatre debut.

Tennessee Williams Camino Real is not an easy play to produce or to take in. Fifty-nine years after its original Broadway debut, it continues to divide audiences and critics alike with its complicated structure and even more complicated discussion, but Bieitos bracing production does not shy away from its controversial legacy, delving ever further into its dark, pessimistic themes. Too frequently we forget that a polarizing response is actually a good thing. Goodman's Camino Real bravely risks unpopularity, and in so doing creates a stinging, sensual protest.

The artistry on display in the play is triumphant, and so too is Bieito's unflinching adherence to provocation through his spectacular images. Of the Goodmans two stages, the Albert and the Owen, the Albert is arguably the weaker of the two, with an exclusive energy that often cannot escape the impermeability of its proscenium arch. The more malleable, intimate Owen is my personal preference. But Bieito has unleashed Camino Real on the Albert with a confrontational directness and a rock show energy that catapults the show into the audience. It's Camino Real on speed.

And German Designer Rebecca Ringst's set is a huge factor of the shows scorching energy. Ringst coolly takes advantage of the depth and wing space of the stage to simulate a wide expanse. Covered in commercial neon logos, metal fencing, and a flock of stage props, the effect is an inescapable, timeless saloon where every fight is quickly forgotten after a few shots of whisky. But then again, whisky becomes the problem. Theres a plague of alcoholism in the play, and at several points, a character pathetically slurps it off the grime-covered ground - a play of rock bottoms.

Bieitos staging brings uncomfortable attention to humanity's harmful excesses: carnal overindulgence, gross abuse of substance, and our emotional dependency on willful ignorance. In a difficult choice, Bieito and his design team unsubtly link these vices to Americas profound impact on the world.

After a Survivor (Travis A. Knight) is shot from an impersonal distance without reason, an empty-eyed La Madrecita De Los Perdidos (Jacqueline Williams), a woman akin to the Oracle at Delphi, holds his bleeding corpse, as they sit surrounded by a graveyard of small American flags. It was a sight that made me squirm with a nervousness that can only be elicited by the truth.

And with this play, Williams views the truth through a corrupted lens. It would be stupid to attempt a play-by-play of the Williams text. He wrote Camino Real with deliberate obscurity and stark poeticism; without an easily discernible narrative. The events of the story are unclear, involve characters that are direct allusions to literary works (Lord Byron and Casanova), and will have varying significance for different people. This style became much more pronounced in his later years, which took a strong turn for the expressionist.

Camino Real is in many ways the love child of A Streetcar Named Desire and Vieux Carré. In all three plays, Williams emphasizes the extrasensory spiritual significance of location. Camino Real occurs in a small unspecified town in Latin America, around a small village square inhabited by people from the United States and Europe. Its a place where, similar to many small towns, its citizens cannot find a way out only in.

Telling several characters stories through emotional resonance rather than sequential plot, the story is driven largely by the entrance of Kilroy (Antwayn Hopper), a boxer, who becomes the victim of the harsh, unforgiving Camino. Bieito's rebellious aesthetic pairs gloriously with the playwright's own against-the-grain determination. Along with his design team, he has paradoxically given life to a dying world. And as its citizens, Bieito has been given the gift of a tremendous cast of actors.

Auteur directors are not usually praised for eliciting strong individual or ensemble performances from actors. Rather they are both applauded and condemned for billing themselves as the star. But Bieito unexpectedly encourages an enthusiasm and thrilling passion in his cast that is quite rare and fantastical.

The original production packed the stage with thirty people, but this intermissionless adaptation by Bieito and Marc Rosich has reduced that number to a condensed thirteen making for a more concentrated, probing play. Individually the actors exude their characters tortured existences with openness and refreshing liberation. They allow focus to fall on their ugliest and most shameful behaviors. Barbara E. Robertsons Rosita squeezes out some accidental laughs from the audience, but viscerally carries a desperate gravitas as she wails the word love! from the depths of her soul.

Recalling the sense of woe that maliciously stalks every one of these creatures is depressing to me even now. As Baron de Charlus, André De Shields has a tender wilted persona of fading aristocracy that makes his demise tragically anticipated. David Darlow and Marilyn Dodds Frank as Casanova and Marguerite are relics of an older more forgiving society, and Carolyn Ann Hoerderman imparts The Gypsy with a high-octane, drug fueled jerkiness. Hoerderman also sports my favorite of Ana Kuzmanics freaky costumes.

Smartly Bieito brazenly immerses his smoky atmosphere with an infusion of music. Accompanied by James F. Ingalls interogation-esque bright lights, the cast lulls the audience into initial compliance with a swaying mariachi tune, equally content and melancholic. Intermittently characters sing more recognizable songs that shed a contemporary light on their trauma and bring a new insight to the story. De Shields has the strongest use of music in the play with his character, scoring a vulgar sex sequence with a quiet, folksy song - creating contrast with scary introspect.

Camino Real is, in fact, a nightmare of hard-hitting introspect. In some ways Im hesitant to write or speak of it for fear of the passionate refusals of my own interpretation. But that is the thrilling achievement of Bieito and his production - it fuels heated discussion, not only on theatre, but on life as well.-Johnny Oleksinski

'Camino Real' plays The Goodman Theatre through April 8.