Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real stomped onto Broadway in 1953 and, bewildering and alienating critics and ticket buyers, less than two months later, stumbled and fell along the Great White Way. Ever since then, theatre companies all over the map have tried to make something enduring and meaningful out of it. Point Park U’s Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Conservatory Theatre Company now takes a stab. A New York director with major credits was engaged. He’s George Ferencz, whose four-decade history includes 30 productions for La Mama E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Company). You can imagine where he was likely to head. Unquestionably he’s done a lot to get the student cast to stride vividly around a tiny playing space and make darkly colorful characters visually quirky and provocative. He chose to make the whole thing suggest the Mexican fiesta, The Day of The Dead even though, in his interpretation, characters don’t follow the tradition of celebrating lives of the departed; instead they throb with fear and anger.
You may find the underpinnings not all that clear; Ferencz’s staging emphasizes movement and caricature over clarifying a text which he has certainly cut. And many of the students, immersed in postures and big gestures, fail to deliver the essence and emphases which the remaining lines could have, shouting far more often than necessary. It sounds as if Ferencz didn’t work with them enough on the words, concentrating instead on style.
Plot-wise: in a main plaza of a poor, isolated, inescapable town somewhere south of the US border, a number of famed literary characters struggle to survive cruelty and misfortune. Principally this focuses on Casanova, Lord Byron, Marguerite Gautier (aka “Camille”) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame gypsy girl Esmeralda, plus World War II legend Kilroy (of “Kilroy was here” fame). After he arrives, he tries to fit in or to escape. Casanova courts Camille while Kilroy falls in love with Esmeralda. The play is divided into 16 “blocks” i.e: scenes, each block announced by hotel manager Gutman, one of several devices breaking down the fourth wall. As for much of what else happens, that strides into fantasy and unpredictability, closer to Theatre of the Absurd than to other Williams plays.
Clearly Williams, in his early 40s, tried to say something significant in an experimental way, rather than with his usual narrative clarity. Nonetheless Camino Real, located between The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) comes populated by typical Williams people, unhappy and unable to come to terms with the miseries of their lives, in scripts where symbolisms inevitably reside. Here the symbols look like the point. It doesn’t really matter what personal ghosts Williams was trying to lay; he always seems to have been doing that. Should such speculations interest you, you’ll find plenty on-line.
It could matter what Williams was trying to tell us. Interpretations can easily be found on-line, even if we don’t have to know his intentions. What counts is what we see and hear and this production doesn’t convey any clear, internal message. Granted that such off-center territory doesn’t come easy to explore, more could be done than this. Also Williams is known for richly worded dialogue; you get no sense of that either. It could be that Ferencz decided to cut Williams’ pretentious phrases; I remember hearing many in Open Stage’s more literal production in 2006.
Given the fact that Ferencz has his cast playing a lot of blocks/scenes broadly, several people manage to keep their portrayals sincere, not carried away by what else happens around them. Actor David A. Berry especially comes across with sincere warmth and vulnerability as Kilroy. And, as Marguerite, Zuri Washington has thoroughly convincing personality.
Interestingly, in the original 1953 production, only one famed character from literature was specifically named, Esmeralda. It would be interesting to know what Williams meant by that. She was played, by the way, by Barbara Baxley in cast full of major talents including Martin Balsam, Hurd Hatfield, Frank Silvera, Jo Van Fleet and Eli Wallach. Elia Kazan directed. Even though the play can leave you cold, being there to witness that original production would have been worth the time and price. Students at the Conservatory could legitimately feel that this is worth their time; they get good training in movement and in becoming parts of an unconventional conception.
Camino Real resumes it paces on December 2nd and continues through December 12th at
Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. Info and tickets: 412/621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com