The quartet of East Coast revivals of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” continues with Michael Wilson’s wildly theatrical production for the Hartford Stage Co. This airing couldn’t be less like the Williamstown Theater Festival mounting of the summer. Instead of using the New Directions printed version, which was considerably revised from the 1953 Broadway script, Wilson has created a new version employing sections from Williams’ original 1948 one-acter “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real” and the Broadway rehearsal script — along with a few updated references. There are even lengthy sections set to music, particularly several recitative and aria-like passages for Betty Buckley as Camille.
Indeed, this production’s opening scene plays very much like the opening of a musical. Gutman, instead of Don Quixote, opens the play coming down a theater aisle (Quixote doesn’t appear until the very end, operating as a deus ex machina arriving to rescue Kilroy). On the stage itself most of the large cast dances to a Latin beat as they sing a song that seems to be titled “On the Camino Real.” Because the play is so chaotic to begin with (Williams himself said it was “a freakish thing that only a few may like”) Wilson’s rewrites and musical additions are perfectly acceptable, as is his decision to opt for no-holds-barred theatricality while also wisely underplaying the role of the street people that got out of hand in Williamstown. Although some individual performances are disappointing, notably that of Rip Torn as Casanova, this is a more persuasive production overall than the WTF’s.
One major reason: the absolutely right Kilroy of James Colby. He’s the quintessential broken-down boxing champ, none too bright, none too well-educated , an innocent among the overly sophisticated, world-weary Camino Real denizens. Colby’s Kilroy anchors this production to the stage and to some semblance of reality.
Torn, on the other hand, seems all wrong as Casanova, looking more like a retired businessman in his rumpled pinstripe suit than a former great lover. He also garbles too many of his lines. Buckley brings presence to her Camille but fails to capture her pathos and physical fragility. Apart from almost fainting at her first entrance, hers is a tubercular Marguerite who is as tough and hearty as they come.
The rest of the large cast works hard and, for the most part, well. John Feltch brings real feeling to Byron’s monologue on the burning of Shelley’s corpse. Helmar Augustus Cooper may be a bit too benign as Gutman, but he too has a commanding presence. Novella Nelson’s Gypsy, with or without microphone, is vastly amusing and suitably crass, and Kimberly King, Natalie Brown, Nafe Katter , Remo Airaldi and Cheryl Alexander, among others, all add to the sometimes too festive atmosphere. (Wilson tends to stress the play’s comedy, sometimes at the expense of the deathly atmosphere that should suffuse the Camino Real.)
Director Wilson and his set, costume and lighting designers Jeff Cowie, David C. Woolard and Howell Binkley make good use of the HSC’s wide stage, Cowie opting for transparent walls and scaffolding to surround the Camino Real plaza he’s so deftly designed. John Gromada’s music, Peter Pucci’s movement and Mark Olsen’s fight scenes add to the antic impact.
No one will persuade this theatergoer that “Camino Real” is anything but a mess. But it’s the sort of potentially fascinating mess to which directors will always be drawn. As long as they can stage this difficult play with the brio and expertise Wilson brings to it, why not?