The playwright John Guare once wrote that the title of Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real," a wildly free-form 1953 poetic pageant set in a crummy tropical outpost with shades of New Orleans,
and Havana, embodied both the glamorous Spanish world of one's romantic dreams (savor those elongated vowels) and their seedy, squalid, choking doppelganger. When pronounced "
," Guare wrote, this place felt like "the Yale I was living in, where the spring of humanity has gone dry."
That same feeling — with the
substituting for Yale — doubtless afflicts some of the audience members heading for an early exit, or merely squirming in their seats, as the Spanish director Calixto Bieito, known for his shocking productions at European opera houses, here creates his first made-in-the-USA work. He unleashes a feverish and unstinting landscape of sadomasochistic sex (with no less than an ebullient Andre De Shields on the receiving end), aging voluptuaries behaving very badly and a gorgeous young Esmeralda, consumed whole by the actress Monica Lopez, whose persuasive tools of communication extend to her entire body.
With the help of the very skilled Catalan writer Marc Rosich, who has added other Williams material to the original text, Bieito explicitly links "Camino Real" to the alcoholism of its author. Looking like a cross between English poet Philip Larkin in a raincoat and
the Williams-like actor Michael Medeiros (whose immersive performance is extraordinary) swills and vomits booze, speaking with Williams' signature cadence and seemingly conjuring all these shadows of desperate figures real (Casanova, Lord Byron) and fictional.
Some moments, he's on the floor in a stupor. At others, he rouses himself to accompany these figments of his own imagination with romantic music, which Medeiros plays on the guitar, accompanying his own heebie-jeebies.
Most directors would shy away from so explicitly sticking Williams in his own play, but not Bieito, who shies away from nothing. "Camino Real" is known for its unwieldy form; Bieito makes it into a crystal-clear meditation on the demons of the booze-filled, midcentury American writer, constantly watching the demons of excess consume all his shadowy fragile beauties (played, with admirable guts, by the likes of Barbara Robertson, David Darlow and Marilyn Dodds Frank). He dispenses here with the walls of the Siete Mares Hotel, the flophouses, dusty streets and other such literal confines. You don't need them. You see Bieito's construction of Williams' interior mind-scape as surely as if you were watching an X-ray. And this is not a wholly nihilistic show. Jacqueline Williams, who plays La Madrecita De Los Perdidos and does some of the best work of here of her career, has the eyeballs of a demon but the soul of a dreamer, singing of a world that could have been. Bieito's mostly Spanish soundscape is one of this formidable production's most powerful weapons.
In terms of the treatment of Williams himself, this feels like an outsider's construction. That has palpable benefits, not the least of which is the audacity of a show forged by a director with no previous investment in Williams and all he represents to American drama. One example is a stunning moment where disco balls drop from the roof and you see Medeiros' character, here called The Dreamer, with his cheek up against its panels, loving it, devouring it yet simultaneously being refracted into incohesion and despair. It's as potent a theatrical image of Williams as I've ever seen. Bieito and Rosich clearly want to probe the hell of being a writer, and they sure unleash all the right demons.
But there is also a price to pay. Bieito is working on his first American play, and, perhaps inevitably, he invests this show with much U.S. iconography. His costumer Ana Kuzmanic (whose work is otherwise rich indeed) gives Lord Byron a stars-and-stripes shirt. And when Kilroy (once played by Al Pacino, now by the beautiful Antwayn Hopper) arrives, he looks like a cross between a Las Vegas prizefighter entering the ring at Caesars Palace and a former superpower, atrophied into a global Grim Reaper.
Some of that is fair enough. Williams' Kilroy was based on the prototypical willing GI and it's a smart idea to comment on the current geopolitical landscape, especially because this play can function perfectly well as a metaphor for various bankrupt economies, where prostitution and desperation is growing apace.
But — and it's a significant "but" — Williams once walked the very streets outside the Goodman, and he was a poet of the universal soul more than an American apologist. For Bieito, Williams and his American ilk are clearly iconic. (Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann's well-acted and rather Texan Gypsy feels a little like one of those figures you often see in European treatments of American culture.) They eat that kind of stuff up in Barcelona. But in Chicago, one senses the director's lack of understanding of Williams' relation to actual life as it here is lived. His images — whether De Shields' richly wrought Baron de Charlus or Matt DeCaro's quietly horrific Gutman — are powerful theatrical creations. Stunning, in fact, due in no small part to the acting.
But beyond The Dreamer, you crave a deeper understand of how Williams always took care of his delicate losers and how he based them on real people. It is the only blind spot in an otherwise remarkable production. Bieito will do his best American work when he knows America better.
But this is still a show serious theater fans will not want to miss. Leave kids (and teens) at home, but be neither fazed nor overly distracted by the explicit content, which is no more intense than you can see from time to time in other Chicago theaters (albeit generally smaller ones), and mostly indicative of this great director's attempts to get to the heart of the matter and allow his actors to use every weapon in their arsenal. Because Bieito is so free-ranging, the set design, by Rebecca Ringst, is a thrilling melange of neon and soaring walls, offering both confinement and, perhaps, the chance to wake up and climb away. James F. Ingalls' pulsing lights are rarely soft focus; Bieito puts Williams' characters in a series of spotlights, as if forcing them to take responsibility, when they'd rather creep back into the shadows.
Williams himself always allowed them that escape. But Bieito's world is much less forgiving and here is a show that puts them, and the tortured dreamer who created them, in full glare.
Through April 8
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
1 hour, 50 minutes