'Camino Real'

To fans of Tennessee Williams, a flawed "Camino Real" is more welcome than none at all.

On Tennessee Williams’ road of life known as “Camino Real,” we all end up in a dingy central square under martial law, downtrodden yet doggedly hanging on in hopes of achieving some grace. To pull off the teeming spectacle which renders the 1953 epic virtually unseen nowadays, the Theater@Boston Court mixes in a few pros with CalArts undergrads, who struggle to convey the lifetimes of hurt Williams knew in his bones. The result won’t persuade doubters, but to fans a flawed “Camino Real” is more welcome than none at all.

The work’s class consciousness is excitingly evoked by designer Dorothy Hoover in environments high and low. At the end of their ropes, echoes of past and future Williams characters stagger past the ritzy Siete Mares Hotel’s velvet ropes to the appalling squalor of the “Ritz Men Only.” The doomed Camille here, Marguerite Gautier (Marissa Chibas), is like Blanche DuBois in loving neither wisely nor well, while the faded, melancholy Jacques Casanova (Tim Cummings) presages defrocked Shannon in “Night of the Iguana.”

The likes of Don Quixote and Proust’s Baron Charlus — impressively doubled by Lenny Von Dohlen — drift through 16 sequences or “blocks,” each offering a snapshot of Williams’ world. Some dare the surrounding desert Terra Incognita to “Make voyages! Attempt them! There’s nothing else.” Others engage in a mindless dance of death before sinister streetcleaners cart them off in the trash.

The youthful cast, predictably, does best when high energy or idealism prevail. Matthew Goodrich brings both to his splendid Kilroy, the wiry ex-boxer with “a heart as big as the head of a baby” (think Mangiacavallo in “Rose Tattoo”). As the play’s designated everyman, Goodrich balances innocence and cynicism when he encounters gypsy Esmeralda (lovely Kalean Ung), whose virginity is restored nightly to her johns’ delight. Theirs is the most fully realized “block,” genuine heat generated by a Rio-tinged Carnavale choreographed by Ameenah Kaplan to Kwan Fai Lam’s pulsating score.

But helmer Jessica Kubzansky’s casting is spotty. As literature’s most famous consumptive, Chibas is a fleshy Amazon as vulnerable as a Sherman tank, while Cummings brings neither sensuality nor sensitivity to Casanova.

Their scenes — perhaps Williams’ all-time toughest acting challenge — founder in a torrent of underfelt words and excruciating boredom, intensified by the cast’s corny, unvaried psychological gestures as hotel keeper Gutman (Brian Tichnell) announces each new block. We start counting down the scenes like a prisoner chalking off days in his cell.

Meanwhile, portraying the “impenetrable” Gutman as an all-too-penetrable, omnipotent emcee out of “Cabaret” shoves a shiv into the play’s fabric. If he’s not as much of a cat on a hot tin roof as everyone else — desperate to placate the unseen ruling junta by pacifying a increasingly unruly crowd — then there’s no tension; we know the smirking Tichnell can clamp down on any chaos with a whiff of fairy dust. Williams never acknowledged any such controlling intelligence in his interpretation of the cosmos.

The play’s single most poignant moment — the destruction of Casanova’s “fragile mementoes” as his suitcase is tossed to the street — comes to naught, partly because of Cummings’ lumpen take but mostly because Gutman is nude at the time.

Coarseness and delicacy alike are superbly lit by Ellie Rabinowitz in a myriad of stark and saturated effects, as if everything were actually succeeding as poetry.

Camino Real

Theater@Boston Court, Pasadena; 99 seats; $32 top

Production

A Theater@Boston Court and CalArts School of Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky.

Creative

Sets, Dorothy Hoover; costumes, Silvanne E.B. Park; lighting, Ellie Rabinowitz; sound, Patrick Janssen; choreography, Ameenah Kaplan; production stage manager, Rebecca L. Trotter. Opened, reviewed Feb. 12, 2011. Runs through March 13. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Kilroy Matthew Goodrich
Jacques Casanova Tim Cummings
Marguerite Gautier Marissa Chibas
Gutman Brian Tichnell
Don Quixote/Baron Charlus/Lord Mulligan Lenny Von Dohlen
With: Ashli Amari Adams, Michael Aurelio, Mitchell Colley, Cristina Frias, Jasmine Hughes, Shanna Malcolm, Murphy Martin, Frank Raducz, Jr., Christopher Rivas, Pete Sauber, Zachary Schwartz,. Caitlin Teeley, Joseph Thomas, Kalean Ung, Harley Ware.

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