Should a play, like a poem, not "mean" but "be"?
Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams posed that question in his preface to Camino Real, in response to the widespread bafflement that greeted the play when it was first produced in 1953. Williams concluded that drama does not enjoy the same lack of contextual confinement that poetry does, and that a play must have some sort of theme or message, without which it is simply an act of self-indulgence by the author.
Characteristically, he didn't spell out what he believed the meaning of Camino Real to be. Instead, he "never thought the play would be obscure to anyone willing to meet it more than halfway."
Few people expressed such willingness in the 1950s, and according to Williams, the original Broadway production, produced several years after the play was written in 1946, was greeted by a lot of "sibilant noises."
It's to be hoped that more people will be willing to meet Williams on his own terms now. Camino Real, while still dark, dense, and occasionally "difficult," also has the alluring quality of a dream. It's a hallucinatory experience full of symbolism and gleanings that are elusive but not entirely opaque. The idea is to let the dream unfold in front of you and to think about what it means afterwards.
That's easy enough to do with this production at the Undermain, Dallas' most consistently intriguing theater. With its subterranean space and imposing concrete columns, the erstwhile underground parking lot lends itself to ambiguous material that arises from, and appeals to, the subconscious. Director Raphael Parry and set designer Carolyn Adams Cole make the most of this setting, creating the illusion of an alternate reality with a minimum of props or technical whiz-bangery.
The alternate reality here, of course, is that of Williams' own mind. As he wrote in the preface, Camino Real is "nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and world I live in, and its people are mostly archetypes of certain basic attitudes and qualities with those mutations that would occur if they continued along the road with this hypothetical terminal point in it."
The terminal point is a walled city that serves as a kind of limbo for a variety of characters, including real and fictional luminaries from literature such as Lord Byron, Don Quixote, Casanova, and Dumas' courtesan, Marguerite. The city's main thoroughfare is the Camino Real, which ends in a square dominated by a dry fountain.
Like "Hotel California," it's a spooky, often lethal place rife with false glamour and the strain of people attempting to maintain whatever pose they have adopted in the face of growing doubt and fear. You can check in any time you like, but you can (almost) never leave.
Into this morally murky atmosphere comes Kilroy, an all-American boy wanderer full of pluck and vigor, but sorely lacking in the sophistication and guile necessary to survive on the Camino Real. Played with considerable charm by Timothy Vahle, Kilroy is part Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, part upright Fess Parker from Davy Crockett, and part '50s-beat-generation tumbleweed. Virtually alone among the denizens of Camino Real, Kilroy is unwilling to subvert his quintessentially American reality, with its emphasis on personal achievement, clean fun, straight sex, and good sportsmanship, for the much more old-world, Machiavellian reality in which he finds himself floundering.
As Williams noted, he was seeking and found a release when he wrote Camino Real, a release similar to that of a "piano player in a bebop session," with the freedom to follow his fancy. So while the play loosely chronicles Kilroy's quest to escape from Camino Real, it flits back and forth over the fortunes of dozens of other characters as well.
The second act focuses on Casanova, the lover of Marguerite. Like a bird in a cage, Casanova is trapped on the Camino Real. For Casanova, the cage represents security as well as confinement, a security he finds difficult to abandon. Ultimately, the accustomed dance steps of romantic pursuit, and the bonds of familiarity he has forged with Marguerite, are more compelling than the humiliation he receives at the hands of Gutman, the controlling bad muse on Camino Real. Though broken in the end, he clings to what he knows rather than risk losing the comfort of his familiar pose outside of Camino Real.
As played by David Lugo, who, with his compact but commanding physical presence and rich, resonant voice, resembles a pocket Ricardo Montalban, Casanova is courtly, suave, and menacing, but ultimately impotent. It's a fine performance, perfectly complemented by Kateri Cale as the aging, increasingly desperate Marguerite.
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Also excellent are Lisa Lee Schmidt as a Chinese gypsy-woman up for any kind of low shenanigans, and Ted Davey as Lord Byron and Don Quixote. As Byron, Davey exudes the bombast, self-obsession, and restless energy of a man confident of his own genius but aware that he has largely wasted it. Determined to rededicate himself to writing, Byron is one of the few characters willing to enter the harrowing desert surrounding Camino Real in order to reach whatever lies beyond it.
The other two characters to attempt this journey are Kilroy and Quixote, and it's significant that only a poet, an innocent, and a dreamer are able to transcend the tawdry but addicting reality of Camino Real. As Quixote states in the hopeful, penultimate line of the play, "Violets have broken through the rocks in the mountains."
Speaking of violets, a nosegay is due to Parry for admirably resurrecting a play which, though written 50 years ago, feels as fresh and stimulating as a first kiss.
Camino Real runs through March 23 at the Basement Space. Call 747-5515.