Sunday, July 21, 2013

Block 17 on the El Camino Real

“Camino Real,” play by Tennessee Williams.  Girl Friday Productions, July 19, 2013

Minneapolis is reputed to be second to NYC in number of theaters per resident.  So there are plenty of plays to see here, by all kinds of companies, fly-by-night and not.  This ensemble group, which seems to specialize in mainstream plays, chose Tennessee William’s most abstract work, “Camino Real” for its latest outing.  The parts played by Gutman, the Gypsy and Kilroy were especially strong.  The title is mostly pronounced in the gringo fashion, ‘CAM-ino Real, as in reality, not RE-al.’

Normally, Williams specialized in sad humanistic dramas about realistic, sometimes working-class, people. Instead, this play is sort of a sprawling, symbolic mess.  Written in 1952, it starts out as some kind of veiled political allegory, ‘perhaps’ about life under an unidentified dictator called the ‘Generalissimo.’  The real Camino Real or “royal” or “kings highway,” is a road in California linking Catholic missions.  Another with that name links Mexico City and California, so it might reference someone like the Mexican dictator Porfiro Diaz, prior to the Mexican revolution. The El Camino de Santiago is a religious trek in the Spanish Pyrenees, which would reference Generalissimo Franco. It could mean Generalissimo Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, who was another bastard during that period. Or it could just mean the ‘Democrats and Republicans’ dominating Los Angeles and the U.S. at the time.

The dictator, through his front man ‘Gutman” and his bandolier-wearing soldiers, controls the water fountain at the center of town, shoots people to death in the plaza, controls the main hotel, and captures people to turn them into ‘patsies’ or clowns.  His ‘street cleaners’ patrol the streets and haul away the dead bodies of the poor.  The Gypsy and her hooker daughter work with Gutman to dominate the Town, which he has divided into 16 blocks – just as the play has 16 sections.  Gypsies in the 50s, of course, still meant ‘treacherous.” Gutman has banned the use of the word, “hermano” – brother in Spanish.  The pronunciation alone hints that the play is dominated by Nortenos.  So it looks like a veiled and hesitant look at oppression.   Perhaps a theater version of magical realism a la “100 Years of Solitude.”  Indeed, the Camino Real is a bleak place, and Williams said it was his vision of his world at the time. 

The lead characters are various ridiculous romantics – Don Quixote, Casanova, Baron de Charlus from Proust’s “Remembrances of Things Past,” Lord Byron (as a rock and roll poet), a famous courtesan, Marquerite Gautier, and a famous gypsy.  Into this batch of hapless romantics runs “Kilroy.”  Kilroy is the name U.S. soldiers used during World War II to mark their presence in various European towns through drawings.  Kilroy is a former Golden Gloves champ, down on his luck, but still happy, energetic, naïve, yet pure at heart.  Kilroy, who is working-class, stands up to Gutman, with no help from the romantics, and is ultimately beaten and turned into a ‘patsy’ with a blinking ‘red’ nose.

Most of the ostensibly political action takes place prior to the intermission – in the first 6 blocks’ of the portentous ‘Real.’  After intermission, during the next 10 blocks, many denizens of the Camino Real jump on the ‘il fugitivo’ plane and escape.  The soldiers disappear.  What remains are two love stories between Casanova and the Courtesan and Kilroy and the Gypsy’s daughter, Esmeralda.  The street cleaners lose their political nature and take on the nature of ‘death’ itself.  Gutman ultimately just becomes a ‘devil’ figure, disconnected from politics.  Kilroy and Quixote eventually leave the Street together through a one-way exit – suicide - after Kilroy escapes his role as a patsy.  The aging Casanova and his unwilling Courtesan finally embrace, even though Casanova was not known for his allegiance to one woman.  The Gypsy girl falls in love with the honest gringo, but he has been turned into a cat and is dead and gone.  In the end, Williams jettisons allegorical politics and instead timidly embraces ‘love’ as his solution to the problem of death and decay – something we are familiar with from his other plays.  Of course, this is no solution either.  Helplessness is instead the overall feeling the play transmits. 

Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, was gay, and was marked by that birthplace and his sexual orientation. He died in a hotel in New York, some say from an overdose of drugs, others from the effects of his drugged state. 

This play seems to be an attempt to generalize and perhaps modernize his style.  It was written at the beginning of the McCarthy period and some see it as a reaction to the conservatism of the time. After all, writers do not write in a social vacuum.  I’ve seen 6 of his other plays in various forms – “Glass Menagerie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Night of the Iguana,” “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Summer & Smoke,” and “Suddenly Last Summer” - and this is the weakest.  He worked in Hollywood for a long time, adapting his plays to the screen, and was no doubt familiar with the ‘El Camino Real’ running through California and Los Angeles.  Williams turns that road from a beautiful name into an awful place – ‘perhaps’ his view of America, but a very hazy view at that.  Many commentators attempt to make this Williams' play political.  Even this troupe writes that this play will ‘resonate with the present.”  Personally, anything this oblique will not resonate much at all.  What we really need are direct artistic attacks on oppression and the state, not heavily veiled, self-censored, and ultimately pathetic, attempts.

And I saw it at Theater Garage
Red Frog
July 21, 2013