That Barcelona-based Calixto Bieito, the notorious and gloriously radical revisionist director of opera and theater, polarizes audiences is undeniable; it’s not clear that even advance warning will prepare certain minds from displeasure with his first American production, a re-imagination of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” at the Goodman Theatre. At an opening in Goodman’s sister theater a week earlier, I overheard chatter among the snack-bar staff and the ushers, murmuring about unhappy audiences in the other theater. That same day the New York Times profiled the production, writing of an orgy (which turns out to be more bacchanalian euphoria than Penthousian porno) and, well, expectations for mayhem were properly raised for its official debut. So what happened? About five walkouts on opening night, thanks to:
a) Graphic depictions of sex, both gay and straight, albeit with minimal nudity;
b) Occasional violence of a bloody nature;
c) Complete lack of narrative cohesiveness.
It’s an interesting paradox that our minds use narrative to organize information, to create order out of the events in our lives, but we dream in fragments, in incoherence. Our subconscious is surreal. Absent narrative, the conscious mind still seeks it, leading first to frustration and perhaps, in turn, to boredom. At least that describes my initial experience with this production.
But eventually I gave in to the incoherence, riding waves of poetry, images of astonishment, moments of profound truth. By play’s end, I was enraptured by this drunken dream of an artist who might be the playwright himself, in this widely regarded to be his most autobiographical play and most structurally unconventional. The characters are of a kind he always favored in his plays: the broken down, the disillusioned, the oppressed, the persecuted, the emasculated. Even those iconic figures of literature portrayed here, like Casanova, Don Quixote, Lord Byron, are diminished. Williams knew of what he wrote, of his own suffering even in the face of his fame and acclaim. He knew that his forebears suffered in spite of their immortality.
Is this the mind of the writer at midlife (crisis)? Is this America at empire’s end?
Given the obscurity of this particular work of a playwright known for realism, and the director’s wide renown for hacking up and rethinking classic texts (in this case with the Williams estate’s approval), it’s hard to know whose vision is unfolding on stage, but it doesn’t matter. The themes, whether vintage Williams or contemporary Bieito, seem to exist out of time and out of place (Camino Real, meaning Royal Road in Spanish, is a dreamscape of uncertain destination). It’s not America, but visual images of disturbing detail paint an American dream gone wrong, especially in the depiction of African-American characters: At first, Tony winner André De Shields depicts Baron de Charlus as his namesake, Proust’s licentious gay man, but soon emerges from the rubble like a slave in chains; the boxer Kilroy, played by Antwayn Hopper, is turned into a patsy, a clown. The fine Chicago actor Jacqueline Williams’ La Madrecita de los Perdidos conjures up the mammy caricature. Women, too, are off the pedestal; they’re gypsies, whores, cheaters.
Nothing is real in this dreamscape of unreality: wigs, false noses and plastic veils all mask characters’ “true” selves; even virginity is a falsehood, a conjuration. And that is important, for as violent and despairing as all this is, more complicated is the sexuality. The Camino is both erotically charged, with young characters (Kilroy, Esmeralda) functioning as idealized objects of desire, and sexually anesthetized, as prostitution, rape and cuckoldry seem almost mundane. Even Casanova’s all washed up and relying on the kindness of strangers.
Death, too, is routine; the street cleaners take away the lifeless and deposit them in dumpsters onstage as if life itself is mere garbage.
“Felliniesque” is unavoidable in describing this production. It’s like “8 1/2” with less story and much more despair. But if you can surrender yourself to this carnival of the brokenhearted, you should. (Brian Hieggelke)
At Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, goodmantheatre.org. Through April 8. $25-$79.