No one gets into the dark, twisty, and offbeat head of Tennessee Williams better than the theater company by the same name. And the latest production by The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans (TWTC), Camino Real, only reiterates this fact.
Camino Real (pronounced with an American accent, as in CAM-ee-no REEL) takes place in the boonies, somewhere in an unidentified Latino village (seemingly Mexico, but it could be any place where Spanish is spoken). The locale is some sort of desert oasis, a barren and bizarre island of loneliness, oddity, and isolation, where residents and visitors are all trapped together with little chance of escape.
The only way out seems to be a long journey on foot, by some sort of pack animal, or via a plane known as the Fugitivo. The train makes very infrequent trips from the town and is usually overbooked with so many eager to leave (Marguerite is so desperate to get out that she was even prepared to leave her lover behind). The end result is that many inhabitants are unable to make it out of the Camino Real alive and instead meet their fate there—on the plaza with the dried-up fountain, amidst dog skeletons and headless mannequins, or at the hotel Siete Mares. Then streetcleaners, decked out in tie-dyed suits and light-up gas masks, serve the role of Grim Reapers for the sickly and dying population. They are constantly seeking out their next victim, whom they collect and callously shove into a trash bin to be disposed of elsewhere. Meanwhile, strange things happen at the Camino Real—such as Esmeralda having her virginity magically restored by the power of the moon. (She doesn't waste any time giving it up again.)
This is a creative and insightful adaption of Tennessee Williams's work. The cast of characters—which include Williams's takes on literary and historic big wigs such as Don Quixote, Casanova, and Lord Byron—are all brilliantly portrayed. Carol Sutton gives an emotional and heartfelt performance as Marguerite "Camille" Gautier, as does James Howard Wright as her devoted companion, Jacques Casanova. Mary Pauley delivers the perfect gypsy, with just the right amount of sarcasm, wit, and boldness for her character to be both entertaining and highly esteemed. Christopher B. Robinson simply rocks his role as Kilroy, which he performs with so much energy that he can often be seen running around the stage or leaping over tables. And you can't help but smile at Nicole Himel's presentation of the taco vendor and customs agent, offered with plenty of humor and the perfect accent each time.
The costumes are whimsical and clever, carefully mismatched and ironically bright and colorful—a striking contrast to the gloominess of the setting and the somberness of the play's overall tone. And yet the costume pieces say volumes on their own. Take, for instance, Kilroy's American flag attire and "Make America Great Again" hat, Esmerelda's green embroidered snake-covered get-up, and Casanova's crown of horns (yes, horns. Like, of the antler variety).
The show is being performed at the Marigny Opera House, which, as an old converted church, already helps to add a certain amount of creepiness and otherworldliness to the Camino Real atmosphere of morbidity, sadness, and hope. But in addition to the ideal venue, the TWTC has done an impressive job of building a set that further creates the appropriate dreamlike effect to fit the playwright's words. And with stacks of old TVs playing a variety of footage, large-scale projections showing bombs going off or a young woman laughing and making random faces, and a wall upstage that's reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, it's hard to forget that you're watching a play that was written shortly after World War II and clearly ties in some post-war messages. In fact, in today's political forum, many of Tennessee Williams's themes are still applicable. Director Augustin J. Correro says of the play, "It highlights income and class inequality even more relevant today than when the play was first staged on Broadway in 1953. The omnipresent but never seen Generalissimo rules the Camino with an iron fist; a totalitarian strongman preying on his subjects' desire for safety and familiarity to keep them poor and ignorant … the real-life parallels are stunning. Was [Williams] peering through the Gypsy's crystal ball?"
Besides delving into politics and death, the play also explores the themes of love, sex, aging, human relationships, and kindness (some characters are even said to have a "heart as big as the head of a baby.") But while much of the storyline is serious and contemplative, the TWTC never fails to add its own flair and fun to the show—like characters who chomp on Cheetos or read Archie comics.
Camino Real is playing Friday thru Sunday until August 13, and is a must-see. Don't try to follow the storyline or understand where the playwright was coming from. Just sit back and enjoy the ride—be it on a pony or a rarely departing plane—compliments of the TWTC. This play is a bit odd and very surreal, and that's most certainly a good thing. Because as Williams himself wrote, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."
Camino Real is August 4-6 and 11-13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Marigny Opera House, 725 Saint Ferdinand St. For info or tickets, go to twtheatrenola.com.
Photos by James Kelley.