There's graphic sex and graphic violence in Calixto Bieito's and Marc Rosich's Camino Real.
There's graphic sex and graphic violence in Calixto Bieito's and Marc Rosich's Camino Real. Credit: Liz Lauren

For their adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s 1953 flop Camino Real, Calixto Bieito and Marc Rosich received permission from the playwright’s estate to futz around with the script to their hearts’ content. As if determined to make the estate regret this decision, the adapters have inserted into the proceedings a figure called “the Dreamer” who resembles Williams at his absolute worst. In Bieito’s staging for the Goodman Theatre, he’s played by Michael Medeiros, who speaks with a southern drawl and has Williams’s round face, thin mustache, and drowsy expression. He stumbles into a spotlight at the top of the show, wearing a rumpled overcoat and dragging a suitcase full of manuscripts. After scarfing down some painkillers and vomiting up some liquor, he chokes on a bottle cap—a tasteless reference to the way Williams actually died—and passes out. The rest of the play takes place in his dark and twisted psyche.

Having asphyxiated the playwright (who nevertheless serves as a chorus throughout what follows), Bieito then turns to the play with the same gruesome intent. Though this is Bieito’s first major U.S. production, the Catalonian director has been making jaws drop across Europe since the 1990s with radical interpretations of classic operas, staged with graphic depictions of sex and violence.

The Goodman’s Camino Real has plenty of both, often at the same time. There are humpings, beatings, shootings, stranglings, and the extraction of a human heart before our very eyes. At one point early on, we see a police officer sodomize a man while garroting him with a length of chain. The piece de resistance, though, has to be the scene in which a young woman convulses atop a Dumpster as her mother “restores her virginity” with needle and thread, all as the ghost of Baron de Charlus from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time belts out “I Put a Spell on You.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the original, you’re liable to walk away from this version thinking that Tennessee Williams was one sick puppy. But whatever name is above the title, this is not the play Williams wrote. Described by its author as “a plastic poem on the romantic attitude toward life,” Williams’s Camino Real is set in the sun-soaked central plaza of some godforsaken, vaguely Central American town. It’s peopled by con men, losers, two-bit hustlers, and past-their-prime lovers—all of whom are locked in a dreamlike limbo and yearning for escape. A number of literary and historical figures who fit in with this motley assemblage also drift in and out. They include Don Quixote, Lord Byron, Casanova, and Marguerite from Alexandre Dumas’s Camille.

The Broadway production, directed by Elia Kazan, received terrible reviews and closed after less than two months. This could be because audiences in the 50s weren’t ready for its experimental nature. Or it could be because the play is a big mess with too many characters, too many ideas, and too many symbols. Williams never manages to get all of these elements to coalesce around an emotional center. He comes closest in scenes involving Kilroy, a bighearted American boxer who, of all the characters, is the most eager to escape and suffers the most degradation.

Kilroy is meant to be the focus of the action, but his creator keeps wandering off in other directions. Still, the writing has moments of lyrical eloquence and, as always in Williams, there’s a compassionate and ultimately heartbreaking portrayal of a lopsided clash between tenderness and cruelty. Flowers still grow on barren crags, as one character puts it, but “the violets in the mountains can’t break the rocks.”

In Bieito’s brutalist interpretation for the Goodman, a story that was hard to follow in the first place becomes incomprehensible thanks to the adapters’ deleting and reshuffling of scenes and their interpolations of songs and excerpts from Williams’s other writings. Meanwhile, any displays of tenderness wither instantly in an oppressive atmosphere of unrelenting nastiness.

A massive chain-link fence along the back wall of the theater dominates Rebecca Ringst’s set design, which is lit in lurid hues by James Ingalls. Into this prison-cum-red-light-district, Bieito throws some of the city’s finest performers—including David Darlow, Matt DeCaro, Mark Montgomery, and Barbara Robertson—who have evidently been instructed to dispense with nuance altogether. They sneer and writhe and deliver their lines in a stylized manner alternating between ferocity and burlesque. This does manage to suggest the eerie intensity of a fever dream, but the carnivalesque tone is all wrong for Williams’s brand of wounded humanism.

Toward the end, Bieito does allow for two or three quiet moments of mercy and compassion, as when Marilyn Dodds Frank’s mournful Marguerite and Antwayn Hopper’s fiercely desperate Kilroy find a few seconds of shared sympathy that, under the circumstances, feel as unexpected and refreshing as a rainstorm in the desert. But the moment passes just as quickly. Tellingly, Bieito’s version of the play doesn’t end, as written, with Don Quixote raising his lance in a gesture of noble defiance. Instead, we get Williams’s stand-in, the Dreamer, sardonically reciting a passage from the playwright’s memoirs about how being a writer means being free—after which the Dreamer promptly drops dead.