The show's setting is over-pronounced real, an Anglicization, from Spanish "camino" meaning "the way," and "real" for "royal," so roughly "king's road," or "royal highway." Yet there's little literal about the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance production of Tennessee Williams' "10 Blocks on the Camino Real," which ran Feb. 15-26.
As concocted by director Matt Davis, it goes madly unspooling like Lewis Carroll on mushrooms visiting Tijuana, a hallucination, a mirage, an existential thought-puzzle.
Surreal way might fit.
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Some stagings callled for 90 actors; Elia Kazan's too-realistic version used 36. Davis fulfilled the Marian Gallaway Theatre stage with just over a dozen able and often double- or triple-cast players, moving within Brad Caleb Lee's emotive and in-motion set, draped skeletal rolling frameworks like the Man of La Mancha's imagined dragons, speckled with images that rise, fall, and sometimes reappear, changed. Fabrics waste through until raw lights burn, then perhaps return, overelaborate, velvet-thick. Pieces roll into shadows, and dizzily waver back out. Kudos to all the crew and tech folks who built and operated the massive works, a show all its own.
A carnival parade of supplicants bleeds a fast-drying fountain. A body — not named, but call it F.R. Shadowing — lies discarded and disregarded on stage, stepped over like roadkill. Disturbing cleaners wearing beaked plague masks — graveyard shifts, predatory birds, Quetzalcóatl the Mayan feathered serpent, symbol of death and resurrection — sweep and perhaps sing — it's unclear where sounds originate, given masks -- eerie as aeolian pipes howling over badlands, punctuated by a clacking like castanets, or hardened nails on tile.
If "10 Blocks on the Camino Real," shortened sometimes to "Camino Real" — not to be confused with its also 1953-born Ian Fleming novel, "Casino Royale" — represents a journey inside Williams' mind, his externalization of stories drawn from life and times, then my, do I suddenly worry a bit less about my own sanity.
In addition to a few problems of clarity, to be expected from the Gallaways' known dead spots, from often-overlapping, imperfectly mixed sound and dialogue, and perhaps from actors more familiar working musicals, mic'ed, and thus not properly projecting, there are issues with young folks playing faded icons such as Casanova or Marguerite.
When a supposedly "frightfully old" prostitute offering love, negotiable, is in reality a woman neither anything like old nor anywhere near frightful, it turns Kilroy's rejection, his "ideals," suspect. Yet that can play, given Williams' ever-present, often sublimated LGBTQ themes. And to stretch the conceit even farther, inside every old person is that young person wondering what just happened, so angst need not be sole province of the aged.
Playwright's notes speak of "grace, mystery and sadness," and while evidence suggests Williams' Camino Real originally envisioned as a Mesoamerican port, the UA production's workplace-like water fountain, movie-star images (Cary Grant and Rock Hudson as virtual twins, in studio-portrait light and shadow, from their primes; probably not coincidental given Hudson as emblem of Hollywood actors playing hetero leading-man/romantic males, while in real life, discreetly living in the closet) could present a commingling of wilder western meadows (Las Vegas) or a city of fallen angels (Los Angeles), a mystical vision of those, before there was a united set of states.
Kilroy was here
Described as a '53 play, that's for the full-length Broadway debut. Williams began writing it in 1946, after a romantic visit to Mexico the year before. In his book "Memoirs," the playwright said ''That was the manuscript Audrey Wood (Williams' agent) told me to put away and not show to anybody." Critics were, it's safe to say, divided. Some called it Williams' greatest; others, his worst.
But it's odious to compare, art isn't sports — goalposts aren't drawn, and scoring runs obsequious to clairvoyant, by which I mean, there aren't numbers — and it's neither a best nor worst. It's an experience. As with all subjective truths, there aren't two sides to this story. There'd be about 7.9 billion, as it's unlikely two people, even sitting side by side at the Gallaway on the same night, would walk out having felt the same encounter.
What IS the story? Well, there's a dude named Kilroy (Baine Ellis), inspired by the World War II graffiti promulgated by GIs, a cartoon figure of a bald head with dangling proboscis peeking over a fence or wall, saying "Kilroy was Here."
What did that mean? Somewhat like this play, it was, to oversimplify, existential: Somebody — Kilroy, an indefinable man, an Everyman — had at one time been stationed here, encamped here, stormed here to take it from another.
The 'toon may derive from an older Foo figure, from Australia, or complaining Chad from the United Kingdom, with simple curves and lines suggesting either Greek letter Omega — The end, as in the Alpha and the Omega; they hadn't yet reached Zed — or a sine wave for alternating current, with plus and minus eyes, and fingers symbolizing electrical resistors. A warning. Nazis feared "Kilroy" was a code.
But the devil — and Esmerelda (Patricia Girondi Schlabendorff), Casanova (Cameron Hollenquest), and Don Quixote (Alexis Reeves) — is in the details. "The Fellowship of the Ring" came out a year after "Camino Real," or Williams might have borrowed from Tolkien's Gandalf: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
Kilroy is a worn-down middle-ish aged male wearing literal golden gloves slung around sweat-stained neck — pugnacious machismo presentation — wandering a possibly mythical city, or purgatory, or frontier, nestled in or near a desert. Kilroy moves, whether time does or not. Characters he interacts with can be bizarrely presentational, maddeningly elliptical, comedic, melodramatic, seductive, abrasive, or several other adjectives.
Whose city-space is it? Perhaps it's run by a broad, expansive personality named Gutman (played by Hunter Thomas with bluff bravado, tempered by self-awareness) — probably after Kasper Gutman, chief baddie from the 1941 film "The Maltese Falcon," as enacted by extravagantly proportioned Sydney Greenstreet, though given climes suggested by sweat, and the dust of crumped paper cups littering like dropped petals, Thomas stands resplendent in tropical whites, more like Greenstreet's Signor Ferrari from "Casablanca," which Williams claimed to have seen 40 times, while working as a movie usher — proprietor of hotel Siete Mares.
The most literal Spanish-to-English translation suggests "seven seas," though given this play's surreality, the sound suggests siesta (a mid-day break) and nightmares (mare being an old English word for a demon who disturbs sleep). A mid-day's mare.
All these words and depths you have to ponder, because Williams had things on his mind. Or bursting out of it.
The 10 blocks refer to scenes, though Williams had expanded that to 16 before publication. Don't think too much. It'll only get in the way, like trying to elucidate a dream.
A personal odyssey
Somewhat like watching a show technically in your language, but performed by Scottish or Australian actors, there's a kind of settling required within such a langurous-frantic linguistic hothouse. Whether intentionally, by the writer, or guided by the director, or perhaps as result of adjustment, Kilroy's odyssey becomes clearer, more personal, as blocks stutter by. We want Hollenquest's suave Casanova to find love with Marguerite (Lillie Boring). the wan courtesan from Alexadre Dumas' "Lady of the Camellias."
While we enjoy the bright, chaotic hilarity of the Oracle (Lauryn Green), we feel prompted to watch her slide aside for adopted daughter Esmerelda. In Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," young Agnes/Esme is kidnapped by Romani — called "gypsies" by Hugo, though that's now considered pejorative — and put to work as a dancer. In Williams' version, she seems to be prostituted, though even that's not clear. The Oracle refers to her kid as "the queen of hearts" and "the booby prize."
Esme offers a virginity she may or may not possess, in return for the kindness of a stranger.
By this seventh — ish — block, we've latched on to Ellis' embodiment of a mid-century Williams male, an earnest performance of the sort played by veteran character actors such as Eli Wallach or Denholm Elliott, later on by showier players such as Al Pacino and Martin Sheen. He takes it fairly, and clearly, down a middle path, flaring up when needed, dealing directly with the oddly dated turns of phrase, bringing it back into the real kind of real, with just a hint of weary, yet not defeated, Humphrey Bogart, especially in the scene with Schlabendorff.
She plays the character musically, riding scales, given Esme's amusing-confusing blend of madonna and whore; she's innocent but aware of her attractions; beguiling, but married to ideals — echoing Kirby's rejection of the earlier "love" offering — and a heart possibly bigger than his, at least figuratively.
Another odd repetition: Kilroy insists he's got a heart big as the head of a baby. Is that bad? Depends on the baby, and the container body, I'd guess, but for Kilroy it's an issue, and it literally becomes an issue on his perhaps-death, brought forth from a body as if a child itself being delivered.
Sound and surreal
In addition to the realized-surreal changes in sets and blocks, one of the finer graces of Davis' production is the dimensionality of sound, crafted by Benton Davis, who also plays and sings on stage, strumming figures on guitar that again suggest a more Anglicized real, invoking pop-song figures from "Rhiannon" (a Welsh/Celtic deity-magic woman who chooses and rewrites her destiny, written and sung by a woman associated with "witchy" imagery and themes), to "Sympathy for the Devil" (a fallen angel as imagined by a UK band, originally played in samba rhythms).
Davis is an always a welcome sight not just for sometimes subtle, sometimes closer to on-the-nose evocations, but for his fab purple suit, something like a flamboyant western Nudie Cohn design, but with Mardi Gras flair. Fittingly for the spectacles of this "Camino Real," Lee also designed the costumes, a treat from Casanova's leather-Latin-lover/rock star look, to Esmerelda's darkly seductive pseudo-mythological sweep, to Quixote's cartoonish mock-up.
This is good a time as any to say: Cast Ryleigh Wido in everything. Though harder to pick out as one of the covered-up street cleaners, the undergrad actor pops in a too-brief burst as Sancho. She's got the timing, physicality and ineffable star appeal the best triple threats show. Wido's sunny burst of hilarious brilliance not only helps loft the end, it blunts a bent toward nihilism.
Hey, if you're literalizing a romantic, troubled mindscape, there's got to be neuron blocks left over for pure joy, right?