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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 422-424
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Camino Real. By Tennessee Williams. Hartford Stage, Hartford, Connecticut. 3 October 1999.
Tennessee Williams wanted Camino Real to break away from the conventions of realistic theatre. At the Hartford Stage, director Michael Wilson followed the spirit of Williams's intent while changing the text of the play with the approval of the Williams estate. The production was more a revision than a revival, as Wilson made use of earlier versions of the play. The published text has a [End Page 422] [Begin Page 424] prologue Williams added after the short Broadway run to help explain the play. Deserted at the Camino Real by Sancho Panza, Don Quixote falls asleep and his dream comprises the action of the play. Wilson replaced this explanatory scene with a scene from an earlier one-act version of the script that prepared the audience for a freewheeling style of theatre.
The play opened with music influenced by Latin America and the Caribbean but not tied to one locale. While soldiers were dancing with their guns in the plaza, the poor joined them as the rich watched from a hotel terrace. They all sang and clapped together as Gutman, the owner of the hotel, stood in the audience talking about Camino Real. Tourists danced down the aisle onto the stage, and a bellboy on roller blades curved through the crowd. It was a perfect picture, bathed in warm light, from a travel brochure. Gutman handed out just such brochures to the audience. After the music stopped, darker lighting cast shadows on an old woman searching for her dog, who found only a dead one on the plaza. A survivor, Terra Incognito, staggered in from the desert dying of thirst. He attempted to enter the hotel and, on Gutman's orders, was shot by the soldiers. The man crawled around the plaza, slowly dying. La Madrecita, a madonna-like character, entered singing a wordless tune that combined blues with a touch of Arabic keening as she comforted the dying man. These strong images created abrupt shifts in tone, mood, theme, and theatrical style that matched Williams's vision of a plastic theatre. Wilson presented each image precisely and then mixed them masterfully, confident in their power.
Many characters stuck in Camino Real epitomized European romanticism: Jacques Casanova, Marguerite Gautier aka Camille, and Lord Byron. Added to the mix is Kilroy, a modern American romantic icon: the quintessential small guy who won World War II. The jumble of characters is sometimes cartoonish but illustrates the painful life a true romantic endures in the real, brutal world. Rip Torn played Casanova as an old man trying to carry himself like the dandy he once was but who moves stiffly from arthritis. Vocally, Torn's Italian accent was inconsistent and his tendency to mumble made some lines inaudible, but his desperation was clear. Torn captured the weakening bravado of the former hero and lover. James Colby had the brash assurance, smart-aleck humor, and physical command to make Kilroy a character we applauded and a symbol of the American energy that cuts through old-world ennui. His refusal to accept Camino Real as the end fueled his ambition to escape. He made a mad dash through the audience but was captured and forced to be a clown. Marguerite, played by Betty Buckley, was an aging courtesan who refuses to admit illness and who is no longer the seductress she once was. Buckley sang two songs added for Marguerite in this production that used Williams's words, with music written by John Gromada. They were performed with the spare accompaniment of a solo guitar. Buckley's distinctive voice displayed Marguerite's iron will as she summoned up the strength to sing, followed by the inevitable weakening as her voice faded to a whisper. Buckley's Marguerite was both heroic and pitiful.
The plaza setting accommodated many short scenes in different locations. The demands of a complicated set in the three-quarter arena space of Hartford Stage mounted a challenge that scenic designer Jeff Cowie solved neatly while...