Monday, March 19, 2012

Gnashville, Tennessee: Williams' 'Camino Real' a Surreal Grind -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Camino Real
a play by Tennessee Williams
New version by Calixto Bieito and Marc Rosich
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 8

I tried.

I really tried to prepare myself to appreciate the Goodman Theatre's staging of Tennessee Williams' 1953 play, Camino Real, which its own Playbill describes as "a fiendishly difficult piece."

I read much of the Goodman's typically stellar supporting material--about the play, Williams' motivations in giving audiences "my own sense of something wild and unrestricted like water in the mountains, or clouds changing shape in a gale," and about Artistic Director Robert Falls' reasoning in bringing Calixto Bieito (a "bad boy of Europe") to Chicago to direct this rarely produced piece.

I read press previews and reviews, including a rather positive one by the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones, which the paper somewhat strangely billboarded on the front page by saying "3-1/2 stars for 'Camino Real,' but some audience members are leaving early." [Note: The Tribune rating scale is out of 4]

I tried to tell myself that stories of patrons exiting mid-show and very poor word-of-mouth, including an aunt's recommendation to waste the ticket and not bother going, could perhaps be chalked up to their missing something that I might enjoy.

I attended an informative pre-show discussion at the Goodman conducted by the show's casting director, Adam Belcuore, and asked his advice for best approaching a challenging piece of theater perhaps further jigsawed by a daring director. I appreciated Adam's advice to not worry if things seemed strange and obtuse at the beginning; just to go with the flow and let the weirdness wash over me.

I also liked the suggestion that coming after the successes of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams was eager to try something different, and perhaps was inspired by other non-linear artistic trends of the early 1950s--bebop, Beat poetry, abstract expressionism, surrealism, etc.

I tried to remind myself how much I've liked not only the two aforementioned masterpieces by Tennessee Williams, but also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana.

As I checked the Playbill and noticed a few familiar names--Matt DeCaro, Barbara Robertson, David Darlow--I tried to settle into my seat and focus on enjoying a unique work by a great writer interpreted by an inventive director and starring first-rate actors.

I tried.

And I failed.

I failed to see almost any artistic merits in a 110-minute haphazard "dream play" that felt more like a nightmare.

If I tried to convey what Camino Real is about, I would fail. I have absolutely no idea what was going on on-stage, nor what I was supposed to derive from it. I know there was an ex-boxer named Kilroy, a guy named Gutman (after the Sidney Greenstreet character in The Maltese Falcon, but I had read about this), and history-derived characters such as Lord Byron, Casanova, Don Quixote and Esmerelda.

All I can really say, and I apologize for being so non-specific, was that I didn't like anything about it. I believe this is the lowest rating I've ever given any performance, and if I didn't feel somewhat obliged to stick it out before sharing my opinion, I would have joined the other 18 people that left the balcony early last night (I counted, and am sure that if there had been an intermission many more would have ducked out, including quite possibly me).

Funny thing is, from reading about the play and the Catalonian Bieito in pieces by Robert Falls and the Tribune's Chris Jones, the implication was that some patrons may be offended, disturbed and/or disgusted by the happenings on-stage.

I'm not offended by much of an artistic nature, and unfortunately wasn't here. Offended, disturbed and disgusted would have been an improvement. Instead I was just confused, bewildered and bored.

I'm always willing to consider the possibility that I missed something, or failed to try hard enough, but if the metaphorical Emperor really was wearing clothes in this case, it clearly wasn't apparent through my binoculars from the ever-emptying balcony.

Perhaps what I needed to try, in order to derive any enjoyment from Camino Real, was taking acid. Or at least Ambien.

(The audience politely applauded at the play's end and it's possible some of the remaining patrons may have liked it, but all I heard were negative comments. Especially after two excellent, crowd-pleasing plays--Red and Race--as part of my subscription series, I won't revile Falls for scheduling something a bit daring (even if I am considering not re-upping next season). But in nearly 10 seasons as a subscriber, this is the first Williams play Goodman has served up. Would it have been so hard to slate a stellar rendition of Streetcar instead? Though I am glad to see they will be doing Sweet Bird of Youth, directed by David Cromer, in the fall.)


TFE said...

I had the same reaction -- this play just failed to connect with me emotionally. I felt like a passive bystander to a collection of bizarre imagery.

Absence of Alternatives said...

I am so glad I found your post after browsing through one glowing review after another. I began to worry: maybe I missed something. (I am going to share this with my husband who saw the play with me tonight) I agree with everything you said, esp this "I'm not offended by much of an artistic nature, and unfortunately wasn't here. Offended, disturbed and disgusted would have been an improvement. Instead I was just confused, bewildered and bored." I have seen many experimental, absurdist, surrealist etc performances, and this one confounded me. I could not find anything that I could remotely empathize with on the most basic human level. Even the aging Marguerite Gautier failed to arouse an ounce of emotional connection in me. All this rambling to let you know I appreciate your review and great writing!