Variations on a key Williams' theme

In tackling Tennessee Williams' rarely seen "Camino Real," Company Rep signals gutsy artistic ambitions with a take-no-prisoners inaugural production as the new resident ensemble at NoHo's prominent American Renegade Theatre.

Something of a Waterloo in Williams' career, the still-problematic "Camino Real" (pronounced "KA-minnow reel") baffled 1953 audiences with its kaleidoscopic journey through a surreal landscape densely populated with archetypes from different periods of Western civilization. A far cry from the stories and characters so meticulously drawn from everyday life in the author's more familiar classics, "Camino Real" feels instead like trespassing without a map in an inner realm of deeply private meanings and associations.

In a loose parallel of Dante's descent through hell (transposed into a succession of numbered blocks along a road of precious "royal" illusions, for which the play is ironically named), Cassanova (Yvans Jourdain), Camille (Jill Jhones), Lord Byron (Ron Slanina), a Mephistophelean narrator (Malachi Throne) and a host of oddballs cross paths with that ubiquitous World War II-era GI, Kilroy (Michael Uribes). The entire action is actually a dream by Don Quixote (Slanina), desperately seeking a replacement companion after being deserted by Sancho (Edgar Aguirre).

The production flexes impressive artistic muscle with intensely committed performances from its 25-member cast. Rather than soft-peddling the play's excesses, a wildly eclectic staging by Hope Alexander -- a veteran of several previous "Camino Real" productions who knew Williams and shared his passion for the play -- fearlessly updates it with contemporary elements ranging from video displays to Tina Turner songs.

Still, despite the inroads that subjectivist realities have made in drama since Williams' time, the work's dissociated, nonlinear sequences can still bewilder and frustrate -- especially if one fixates on unraveling the meaning of each line. The key is to realize that taken as a whole, "Camino Real" is but another variation on Williams' signature theme: the heroic, doomed and inescapable struggle of romantic sensibilities too fragile to withstand the brutal onslaught of modern life. Only here, instead of telling the victim's story from the outside, the perspective is turned inward. Even in Williams' private inferno, the heroes are romantic figures, the villains their oppressors.

-- Philip Brandes

"Camino Real," American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $20-$25. (818) 506-7550. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

*

Reading deeply into solo plays

Palpable promise surrounds "Hughie" and "The Appendix," presented by the Gare St. Lazare Players in their local debut. This double bill, pairing Eugene O'Neill's 1957 ode to a dead hotel manager and Wallace Shawn's published postscript to his 1986 Obie winner "Aunt Dan and Lemon," displays considerable skill and pertinence.

The Gare, an international theater group founded in Chicago in 1982, aims for a unique, comprehensive environment. Using the Eagle Rock studio of artist Steve Huston (whose excellent work speaks for itself), director Bob Meyer achieves cerebral yet accessible results, drawing imposing solo performances from actors Thomas Joseph Carroll and Jim Ortlieb.

The posthumously published "Hughie," in which an alcoholic gambler eulogizes the dead title character to Hughie's successor, is, as O'Neill himself said, "written more to be read than staged." This reading omits the clerk's lines, and Ortlieb's postmodernist attack traces the resulting monodrama with truly awesome concentration.

Shawn's "Aunt Dan" investigates morality, and its "Appendix" -- literally written to be read more than staged -- expands on the topic through incisive personalization. The ingratiating Carroll nails lines like "I have found, through my government, a sneaky way to do some terrible things" in a manner resembling Carl Reiner doing Bertolt Brecht.

The presentation suggests an American variation on a European salon or an unusually intriguing Book Soup event. This may be problematic for those who value the kinetic over the literate, but devotees of thought-provoking, relevant fare and impressive acting should have no such reservations.

-- David C. Nichols

"Hughie" and "The Appendix," Gare St. Lazare Players, 1302 Yosemite St., Eagle Rock. Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $15. (323) 662-7377. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

*

Even streamlined, 'Peer' bogs down

"Peer Gynt," Ibsen's "dramatic poem," was based on the old Norwegian folk tale about the narcissistic scoundrel Peer Gynt, whose wild and sometimes supernatural exploits have given many a post-Freudian academician plenty of grist for scholarly dissertations.

First published in 1867, "Peer Gynt" was the last verse drama Ibsen wrote. Perhaps that was because, when the play was eventually mounted in Ibsen's native Norway, it was critically excoriated. A sweeping blend of comedy, tragedy and folk story, Ibsen's play, if uncut, runs about six hours. In his new adaptation at the Sacred Fools Theatre, director Scott Rabinowitz, working from an uncredited translation, controls and focuses much of the dramatic sprawl, slashing whole segments from Peer's picaresque adventures. Still, at three-plus hours, Rabinowitz's ambitious take remains too much of a good thing. Even given an amusing video segment that further winnows the narrative, the adaptation waxes turgid in its latter scenes.

That said, Rabinowitz and his cast deserve high praise for the sheer ingenuity of their effort. Rabinowitz, who here switches the play's action to the Depression-era Mississippi Delta, has overseen a rich concoction of blues music, folk superstition and steamy sensuality that suits his source material down to the ground. Music director Michael Anderson, also known as the Legendary Buck Silvertone, contributes a toe-tapping blues score of the most bawdy and traditional stripe.

Jacob Sidney is alternately puckish and commanding as Peer, holding the stage through one of the most arduous roles in the theatrical canon. As Peer's mother, Ase, Eyvonne Williams adds the right touch of folksy naturalism, despite her evident struggle for lines on opening night. Among the large and superlative cast, Troy Blendell stands out as a consummately trashy Troll King; so does Ameenah Kaplan as the Button Moulder, Ibsen's famous and mysteriously symbolic character, a peddler intent upon melting the petty Peer down for a cosmic recycling.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Peer Gynt," Sacred Fools Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends March 1. $15. (310) 281-8337. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

*

A poignant saga of alcohol's grip

Bret Harte once wrote, "One big vice in a man is apt to keep out a great many smaller ones."

Such is not the case for the sad, sodden protagonist of "Rum and Vodka," a short early work by Irish playwright Conor McPherson ("The Weir"), now at the Celtic Arts Center in Studio City. For the young Dubliner in McPherson's one-man show, drink is not only an honest man's failing, it is a bitter cycle of gratification and misery resulting in infidelity, thievery and uncharacteristic violence.

Under the direction of Jay Leggett, rumpled, basset-eyed John O'Callaghan traces the unfortunate progression of his nameless protagonist through an epic three-day binge. A working-class Irish functionary, married at 20 and twice a father before his 25th birthday, O'Callaghan's character feels trapped and frustrated, limited by his circumstances and his lack of education. But as we later realize, those limitations are a thin excuse for the alcoholism that grips him. His latest bender, which we suspect is his worst yet, leaves the young man jobless, probably wife-less and sick to his stomach.

Whether that malaise will lead to sobriety is frustratingly ambiguous in McPherson's strangely unfinished drama, which ultimately drops off a cliff of unresolved intentions.

Dublin-born O'Callaghan, who has been performing the piece for several years at fringe festivals and off-Broadway, performs with aching authenticity and a dry matter-of-factness as humorous as it is poignant.

On a stark stage, talking directly to the audience, O'Callaghan simply and straightforwardly re-creates the sordid, Stygian odyssey of a young alcoholic -- not a novel story, but one that bears repeating.

-- F.K.F.

"Rum and Vodka," Celtic Arts Center, 4843 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Studio City. Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. $15. (818) 760-8322. 1 hour, 10 minutes.

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