I wasn't familiar with Camino Real when I arrived at Actors Theatre of San Francisco's Bush Street digs to experience the company's production of Tennessee Williams' 1953 play. By the time I left the theater a couple of hours later I still didn't feel any more familiar with it.
The play itself wasn't entirely to blame, though even by today's post-postmodern standards Williams' stream-of-consciousness fantasia set in a timeless no man's land isn't easy to digest. My sense of disorientation and ultimately boredom stemmed mostly from Actors Theatre's navel-gazing, arrhythmic attempt to empty the contents of Williams' head onto the stage. The company's efforts, though ambitious and enthusiastic, left me feeling like I had stumbled in on an extremely noisy and emotional performing arts therapy session.
Camino Real is undeniably difficult to stage. Calling for as many as 90 actors, the drama features a staggering 36 characters and many extras. Some of them are products solely of Williams' imagination, like the sinister innkeeper Gutman and the hapless ex-prizefighter Kilroy. Others, meanwhile, are the playwright's take on famous figures from legend and history in their decrepitude, such as a mothballed Don Quixote, a broke and boozy Jacques Casanova, and a limping, geriatric Lord Byron. The largely plotless drama revolves around these characters' broken dreams and futile attempts to escape the confines of their prison: a dead-end, vaguely Latin American seaport with its rundown piazza surrounded by impenetrable walls and populated by a fleapit boarding house, pawn shop, and dried-up fountain. The play's comprehensibility isn't helped by the many apparently random exclamations in a variety of European languages ("La fuente está seca!" "Che cosa posso fare?" etc.), the episodic, time-lapse-photography-like structure, the barrage of abrupt lighting and sound cues, and the fact that characters have an unnerving habit of dying and getting up again.
Critics crucified Camino Real when it first appeared on Broadway in 1953. The production closed after only eight weeks. "Most critics were quite cross about the play," Williams later admitted. Yet while this rambling dreamscape might have mystified mid-20th-century American audiences used to domestic dramas fuelled by teleological plots and sharply drawn characters with clearly defined arcs, Camino Real's reputation has largely changed. Today, many commentators consider the play to be one of Williams' most eloquent works. "A Fantastic Voyage Into Williams's Mind," the New York Times called it in 1999.
It's possible to imagine how, in the right hands, Camino Real could be eloquent. With its painstakingly choreographed visual and sonic imagery, morose sense of humor, and the deliberate marking out of scenes (or "blocks") like paving stones on the road to perdition, Camino Real could be a lurid representation of a waking dream. Perhaps of a dream Williams himself experienced.
At the very least, Biz Duncan's set design for Actors Theatre's production manages to hint at Williams' desire, as he stated at the time of the original Broadway production, to create "something wild and unrestricted that ran like water in the mountains, or clouds changing shape in a gale, or the continually dissolving and transforming images of a dream." Duncan makes the most out of the black box theater's small space. High yet flimsy-looking walls daubed roughly in dull pastel hues create a dual sensation of claustrophobia and fragility. As such, the ramparts suggest both literal incarceration and the idea of imprisonment as a facet of the mind. Duncan manages to pack a lot of detail into his Latin piazza despite the cramped dimensions of the performance area. There's a fountain, a pawn shop, an inn with sidewalk tables and chairs, two balconies, a police station, and a high window from which A. Ratt, the proprietor of the shabby Ritz Men Only flophouse, taunts people below. To their credit, directors Christian Phillips and Keith Phillips explore every corner of Duncan's landscape and beyond, setting scenes at ground level around the fountain, upon the balconies, atop the high wall leading to a symbolic arch at the back of the stage, and even up and down the aisles that flank the seating area.
If only the acting had lived up to the set. The 16 multiple-part-playing cast members in the production seem to be starring in their own individual, private plays written for an audience of none. During conversations, they behave as though they're reciting learned lines at each other rather than engaging in dialogue. This makes the play's longer exchanges, such as those between Casanova and his lady love, Marguerite Gautier, or Kilroy and the Gypsy Esmeralda, particularly lifeless and grueling to sit through. Furthermore, whether running on- and offstage to deliver a letter or selling tacos in a crowd scene, the actors treat even the most insignificant bit of background filler as if it's a soliloquy from Hamlet. It's as though the directors had instructed each performer to forget what's happening onstage around him and to think of himself as the star of the show no matter what. While this approach must be therapeutic for the actors, it's hard for us to watch.
Our experience of the play isn't helped by the failure of some of the performers to enunciate their lines clearly. This play is challenging enough without having to strain to catch the words. At the same time, it's a very noisy production. Actors scream and shout to emphasize emotional moments, and guns go off with ear-splitting bangs. My guest and I spent half of the show with our fingers stuck in our ears, counting down the blocks (which Gutman usefully announces throughout the play as it progresses, like a clapboard on a movie set) we'd have to travel to freedom. I suppose you could argue that there's value in making the audience feel like the characters in the play — confused, lost, and desperate to escape their nightmarish prison. But I doubt very much this effect was intentional.
Williams saw what he wrote on the page as being nothing more than a blueprint for a piece of theater. To him, a play wasn't a play until it had been staged. Going back to read the text in the light of seeing Camino Real for the first time hints at a tightly structured, delicately nuanced work of art underneath the histrionic therapy session that is Actors Theatre's production. But I guess I'll have to experience someone else's production of the play to begin to see its potential power.