Imagine being trapped in a maniacal funhouse from which there is no escape, or walking through one of those distorted mirrors into an equally warped world on the other side. That's the dark, forbidding carnival world of Tennessee Williams' atypical, allegorical drama, "Camino Real," which is receiving a magically eerie production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.
When the play opened in 1953, critics either loved it or hated it, and it's easy to see why. The script is filled with characters from literature who are less flesh-and-blood than stand-ins for ideas - Don Quixote, the perpetual optimist; Camille, "the courtesan who made the mistake of love" - and lines like, "Humanity is just a work in progress."
This isn't easy stuff to perform, but director Michael Kahn and his imaginative designers (especially MurellHorton, costumes, and Derek McLane, sets) have just the right touch, straddling the line between whimsy and seriousness as they reinforce Williams' thesis about the importance of maintaining love, hope and understanding in the face of a cold, cruel world.
After the play's controversial Broadway debut, Williams added a framing device, turning the action into a dream of Don Quixote's, and that format definitely makes the play's wild leaps of fantasy easier to accept. There is an additional through-line concerning Kilroy, the fictitious American GI/Golden Gloves boxer. Kilroy is a romantic with a heart "as big as the head of a baby," and he is also an Everyman normal figure with whom the audience can identify.
Actor Victor Love brings an all-American boy quality to the role, bumbling into Camino Real with a happy-go-lucky attitude before he realizes what a threatening, inhospitable place it is and how difficult it is to leave.
Love seems less fully involved in the longer, quieter scenes in which Kilroy interacts with two women: Joan van Ark as Camille and TessaAuberjonoisas Victor Hugo's gypsy girl, Esmerelda. (In Williams' version, Esmerelda's virginity is restored with the rising of each full moon.)
Along with van Ark, who is best known for "Knots Landing," director Kahn has cast JeanLeClerc, a veteran of such daytime shows as "All My Children" and "Loving" as her companion, Casanova. Both have stage experience and fare admirably here, but it is also sweetly amusing to have soap opera actors in these archetypal romantic roles.
In a play as rife with symbols as this one, the look of the production is almost as important as the performances, and Horton's costumes are an excellent example of how well the various elements of Kahn's vision come together.
For instance, consider the designer's use of feathers. Birds are a repeated motif in the script. When Philip Goodwin's frail Quixote stumbles down the theater aisle and into Williams' mysterious "unspecified Latin-American country," he reads from a chart, "There are no birds in the country except wild birds that are tamed and kept in cages." Feathers adorn many costumes, from a fright wig Kilroy is forced to wear to the sleeves of Camille's white gown.
The bird motif is most overtly reflected by the fact that Gutman, proprietor of the town's only decent hotel and the play's narrator, keeps a pet cockatoo. Nor is the cockatoo the only creature over which David Sabin's white-suited, Big Daddy-like character exerts control. Gutman has a direct line to the "Generalissimo" in charge of this police state, where so-called "street cleaners" are always waiting to scoop up dead bodies and cart them off for dissection. (Horton's creepiest design is the street cleaner's garb - faces completely bandaged, bodies sheathed in white rubber coveralls.)
From Quixote's entrance to Kilroy's various attempts to escape, Kahn makes complete use of the theater, with actors frequently streaming down the aisles and into the boxes. And, when a fiesta breaks out two-thirds of the way into the evening, the play is wondrously transformed into a carnival within a carnival.
Although "Camino Real" lasted only 60 performances on Broadway, it was Williams' favorite play. I suspect he would have been charmed by the Shakespeare Theatre's production.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays (except tonight and July 4), Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, noon tomorrow and July 5. Through July 23