Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 1999

I suppose, if the WTF is to continue its tradition as a leading interpreter of Tennessee Williams, that eventually they would have to do “Camino Real”. In fact this is not the first time they have dragged Williams’ incoherent 1953 flop on to the stage of the AMT. They have invested a lot of talent and resources in this show, but dressing up a dog in diamonds doesn’t make it any less of a dog.

This is really the same question of non-art that I wrote about a few weeks back when Mass MoCA opened. “Camino Real” has no plot and no purpose. It runs almost three hours and consumes a cast of 50. If I had written it no theatre in the universe would touch it, but because it was written by Tennessee Williams it is trotted out and inflicted on audiences by regional theatres quite often. I understand there are four major regional productions this summer alone.

At its original Broadway outing audience members charged up the aisle at intermission and demanded their money back. Critics soundly panned it. The opening night audience that I saw it with at the WTF were way too star struck to behave so honestly. They sat through the whole thing. Apparently we hicks in the sticks are more easily fooled when the emperor graces our stage naked.

There are people who will come wailing at me saying that I haven’t done my homework, haven’t read T.S. Eliot, don’t understand that it is a dream play and dreams don’t have any plot or purpose, they just are. Well, I really don’t think any audience member should have to “do homework” to understand and enjoy a night at the theatre. And I understand fully that dreams have no plot or purpose, which is precisely why they belong in your head on your pillow, not on the stage. Incidently, the device of having the whole play represented as Don Quixote’s dream was added by Williams AFTER the disasterous Broadway run. The play was not originally written as a dream play, it was written as a rambling mess.

But none of that is the fault of the director, the actors, the designers of this handsome production. The show is lovely to look at. James Noone has managed to fit an entire fictional Latin-American town on to the AMT stage, and Kevin Adams’ lighting works with it to define time and space. Director Nicholas Martin keeps the huge cast flowing smoothly through it all, creating interesting stage pictures along the way. Michael Krass has designed costumes that are in turn beautiful, functional, and horrible to look at, just as a dream world shifts from the peaceful to the terrifying in a matter of seconds.

Williams has peopled his limbo-land with an array of famous fictional characters, who then proceed to behave in ways that have nothing to do with their famous fictional counterparts. Also, many of them are less prominent in modern culture than they were nearly 50 years ago, so the WTF has provided several pages of explanation in the program (what was that I just said about doing homework?)

Richard Easton and Blair Brown play Jacques Casanova (if he’s Italian why is his first name French?) and Marguerite Gautier, la dame aux camellias (aka Camille). They make a handsome and well matched couple on stage – well matched in talent as well as appearance. Krass has given Brown gowns to die for. Hope Davis does her golden child turn as Esmeralda, the Gyspy’s daughter.

But if I were going to have to give one reason for you to go and see “Camino Real” it would have to be Ethan Hawke. He is genuine, open, and winning as Kilroy, the every-American. Hawke bursts with energy and brings to this sorry play more heart and soul than it deserves. I enjoyed Easton and Brown, but it was Hawke that made this long ordeal in the theatre bearable.

“Camino Real” runs through July 4 on the MainStage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two and three-quarters hours with two intermissions. Call 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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