Camino Real — Image via girlfridayproductions.org

Camino Real

Girl Friday Productions
Directed by Benjamin McGovern

“I can’t say with any personal conviction that I have written a good play,” Tennessee Williams declared after finishing Camino Real in 1953. “I only know that I have felt a release in this work which I wanted you to feel with me.” I’m not sure if it was a release, exactly, that the audience was feeling at Girl Friday Productions’ staging of Camino Real, but, by the end of the night, director Benjamin McGovern and his cast certainly convinced this audience member that worthwhile things had been said about such weighty topics as love, art, fear, and the desire to remain relevant while growing older.

Given the somewhat absurdist and abstract nature of the play, (in his memoirs, Elia Kazan, who directed the play on Broadway, said that working on Camino Real was the closest he ever got to the avant garde), most viewers would be hard pressed to take a specific point away from the “narrative.” This, of course, is part of the play’s beauty; it functions better as a series of impressions and sensations than as a coherent story with beginning, middle, and end. McGovern and his actors seem to understand this and allow many dramatic threads to remain unraveled. Similarly, they seem to realize that the play is much more interested in asking questions than it is in answering them. Because of this sensitivity to form, Girl Friday is able to deliver a show that feels appropriately playful, probing, and chaotic enough to engage with Williams’ themes and inquiries without obsessing over the fact that tidy conclusions are simply not provided.

“There are people who think that Camino Real was Tennessee Williams’ best play,” wrote critic Clive Barnes, more confident of the play’s worthiness than the playwright himself, “and I believe that they are right. It is a play that seems to have been torn out of a human soul.” While one may not agree with Barnes on the superiority of Camino Real compared to Williams’ other works, (the play’s ambiguity tends to polarize audiences), the second part of Barnes’s statement is undeniably true. The play oozes with urgency and gives the sense that whatever Williams was hoping to come to terms with through his writing was both all-consuming and formidable.

Camino Real — Image via girlfridayproductions.orgTranslated from the Spanish, Camino Real means “Royal Road,” a title that, given the has-beens and n’er-do-wells who populate the street, is bitterly ironic. Both the play and the road are composed of sixteen blocks in a tropical Spanish-speaking town surrounded by an ominous desert that grants very little access to the outside world. Williams described the setting as “nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in.” From this we can only guess that Williams, coming off the dizzying fame of The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and The Rose Tattoo (1951), was beginning to ask himself what would happen if and when he could not match his early greatness.

The play is populated by such recycled characters as Proust’s Baron de Charlus (David Beukema), Hugo’s Esmeralda (Sara Richardson), and Dumas’s Marguerite Gautier (Kirby Bennett). Characters of nonfictional origin include Giacoma Cassanova (John Middleton) and the poet, Lord Byron (David Beukema). These characters, almost down to a man, question, both implicitly and explicitly, what is left when youthfulness, idealism, perhaps even brilliance have worn away. Baron de Charlus has transformed from aesthete to masochist and now lives solely for the acquisition of young men, eventually dying a grisly death at the hands of a particularly brutal one. Esmeralda, the young girl who, in Hugo’s novel, is thought to be a gypsy, but actually ends up being of French parentage, undergoes a lunar ceremony every month to restore her virginity, a ritual she and everyone else seems to agree is ridiculous since purity and innocence are simply not recoverable. Casanova and Marguerite (who has spent most of her life as a prostitute) are both too exhausted by lives spent using and being used by their many lovers to do much more than barely sustain the flickering flame of affection that burns between them. Byron is one of the sole exceptions to the ragtag group of misfits whose glory days are behind them. He speaks of the past, as they do, but not with wistfulness, longing, or regret. Recounting, in graphic detail, his curiosity, revulsion, and wonder at the sight of Percy Shelley’s waterlogged corpse, Byron boldly leaves Camino Real, seeking out an experience that will make him feel as intensely as he did when he gazed upon his dead friend. “Make voyages!” he demands as he rolls out of town. “Attempt them! There is nothing else.” Ultimately, both his ability to leave Camino Real and his desire to seek out new adventures (and, the implication is, make new art inspired by them) is directly connected to the fact that the past rejuvenates him, challenges and inspires him, as opposed to imprisoning him as it seems to everyone else. The ability to remain excited about life and generous towards others is, Williams argues, what saves the artist from obscurity. It is not a coincidence that the only characters who escape Camino Real, other than Byron, are big dreamers as well: Don Quixote (Craig Johnson) and Kilroy (Eric Knutson), a once prize fighter who repeatedly tells other characters that he is “earnest.” In added symbolism, we are told that Kilroy had to give up boxing because he suffers from a medical condition that has caused his heart to grow “as big as the head of a baby.” The moment the phrase is uttered, we can guess that Kilroy’s stay in the Camino Real will not be a long one. It’s no place for people whose hearts are on the edge of bursting; rather, it’s a place for people whose hearts beat meagerly, having long ago shriveled in their chests.

Besides being an environment steeped in lost hopes and misfired ambitions, Camino Real is also a repressive, almost totalitarian place that governs its people through fear imposed by the evocatively named Gutman (Alan Sorenson), owner of the Siete Mares, the nicest hotel on the street. We catch a glimpse of Gutman’s tyranny when he forces Kilroy to wear a red nose and serve as his “pasty.” More generally, the isolation and desperation of the people who inhabit Camino Real is illustrated by the fact that the word “brother” is forbidden, simply because acknowledging the humanity of another person, and recognizing one’s connection to them, threatens the environment of hopelessness and despair. Given that any genuine show of emotion other than fear is considered dangerous on the Camino Real, Casanova and Marguerite’s decision at the end of the play to stay with one another and make the best of the love they share is significant. The voyage they agree to embark upon, to care for each other as well as their weary hearts will allow, may be a modest one compared to Byron’s heroics, but they will attempt it, and this, Williams suggests, is what people generally and artists specifically must do.

Before we are introduced to Casanova and Marguerite, or anyone else for that matter, the play opens with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (Sam Landman) riding into Camino Real and speculating upon what the odd place may be. Panza, taking no more than a cursory look around, deserts Quixote, who has determined that he will spend one night in the town and leave in the morning, hopefully with a new sidekick in tow. He is then transformed into a character merely referred to as “the dreamer,” and it is quite possible that everything we see on stage for the next two hours is merely Quixote’s dream. Determining whether or not this is true, of course, is neither possible nor terribly important. Suffice it to say that by the end of the play, Kilroy, whose enlarged heart has finally killed him, joins Quixote (as a ghost of some sort? maybe?) for his future quests in place of Panza. As was the case with Byron, there are, it would seem, more adventures to embark upon, more lessons to learn, more life to live, if not in the “real” world then somewhere else. The fact that their future quests may be as ill-conceived as the ones for which Quixote is famed is irrelevant. What matters for the characters, and for Williams, is that there is still work to be done.

Camino Real — Image via girlfridayproductions.orgFrom the perspective of an actor and a director (of which I am neither, so this is speculative), it seems that Kilroy would be the most challenging character to depict and play well because his eager wet-behind-the-ears all-American persona would be easy to overdo. Thankfully, this is a mistake that McGovern’s production avoids. While Kilroy is “a fighter” both in the boxing ring and out, his apple polishing optimism is not his only mood. Yes, we guffaw to ourselves at his sweet naiveté, particularly when he has absolutely no idea that the lecherous Baron de Charlus is hitting on him, but we also feel his deep love for the wife he left behind, his frustration with Esmeralda’s advances, his sadness at the thought that all his days of glory are behind him, and his fear when the gypsy fortuneteller informs him that he is next on the street cleaners’ (the play’s grim reaper figures) list of doomed souls. In his review of the play in The New York Times, Ben Brantley claimed that “in this age of irony there is something especially nourishing in such sustained depths of emotion” and although he was talking about the play as a whole, his analysis also applies to Knutson’s portrayal of Kilroy. Both he and McGovern do service to the character by portraying a man with many intricacies, when they probably could have gotten away with presenting him as a caricature.

As far as the aesthetics of the production are concerned, sound designer Katharine Horowitz got it just right. The music was alternately spooky, rousing, alienating, and soothing, all when it needed to be. So too do costume designers Kathy Kohl and Mary Farrell need to be praised. Through the punk rock bondage accoutrements of Byron, the trashcan lid shield of Quixote, and the colander helmet of Panza, they were able to indicate beautifully the faded brilliance of once robust heroes and heroines, who have found themselves having to make do with tattered remnants. Equally compelling were the costumes of the street cleaners, whose orange hazmat suits, complete with creepy face coverings, made us understand that obsolescence, irrelevance, even death aren’t just undesirable elements in the play; they are toxic.

Camino Real has been giving audiences trouble since it was first staged in 1953. But sitting through the confusing or seemingly disconnected parts is well worth the effort, particularly when the play’s earnest (to use Kilroy’s word) emotions rear their snarling, laughing, sobbing, cringing heads. Williams’ desire to examine the aging process (particularly as it is undertaken by people who excelled in their youth, as he did), build a world that does more to art (and artists) than chew it up and spit it out, and his belief in the importance of love and human fellowship, cynical and weather-beaten as it may have been, are ideas worth spending an evening with.

Camino Real is about “manifesting the possibilities,” states David Herskovits, who staged the play in New York, “not about telling people one thing.” In Girl Friday’s production, audiences would do well to let the possibilities of Williams’ poetry and pathos wash over them, and not treat the play merely as a series of symbols that exist to be decoded. So go to Camino Real. Have wine beforehand, at intermission, and while you are chatting about it with friend afterwards, and let the delicacy, anguish, and hope of Williams’ lines envelop you. Girl Friday Productions has seen to it that they are in capable hands.

Photos by Richard Fleischman

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.