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Variations on a key Williams' theme

January 31, 2003|Philip Brandes;David C. Nichols;F. Kathleen Foley

In tackling Tennessee Williams' rarely seen "Camino Real," Company Rep signals gutsy artistic ambitions with a take-no-prisoners inaugural production as the new resident ensemble at NoHo's prominent American Renegade Theatre.

Something of a Waterloo in Williams' career, the still-problematic "Camino Real" (pronounced "KA-minnow reel") baffled 1953 audiences with its kaleidoscopic journey through a surreal landscape densely populated with archetypes from different periods of Western civilization. A far cry from the stories and characters so meticulously drawn from everyday life in the author's more familiar classics, "Camino Real" feels instead like trespassing without a map in an inner realm of deeply private meanings and associations.

In a loose parallel of Dante's descent through hell (transposed into a succession of numbered blocks along a road of precious "royal" illusions, for which the play is ironically named), Cassanova (Yvans Jourdain), Camille (Jill Jhones), Lord Byron (Ron Slanina), a Mephistophelean narrator (Malachi Throne) and a host of oddballs cross paths with that ubiquitous World War II-era GI, Kilroy (Michael Uribes). The entire action is actually a dream by Don Quixote (Slanina), desperately seeking a replacement companion after being deserted by Sancho (Edgar Aguirre).

The production flexes impressive artistic muscle with intensely committed performances from its 25-member cast. Rather than soft-peddling the play's excesses, a wildly eclectic staging by Hope Alexander -- a veteran of several previous "Camino Real" productions who knew Williams and shared his passion for the play -- fearlessly updates it with contemporary elements ranging from video displays to Tina Turner songs.

Still, despite the inroads that subjectivist realities have made in drama since Williams' time, the work's dissociated, nonlinear sequences can still bewilder and frustrate -- especially if one fixates on unraveling the meaning of each line. The key is to realize that taken as a whole, "Camino Real" is but another variation on Williams' signature theme: the heroic, doomed and inescapable struggle of romantic sensibilities too fragile to withstand the brutal onslaught of modern life. Only here, instead of telling the victim's story from the outside, the perspective is turned inward. Even in Williams' private inferno, the heroes are romantic figures, the villains their oppressors.

-- Philip Brandes

"Camino Real," American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $20-$25. (818) 506-7550. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

*

Reading deeply into solo plays

Palpable promise surrounds "Hughie" and "The Appendix," presented by the Gare St. Lazare Players in their local debut. This double bill, pairing Eugene O'Neill's 1957 ode to a dead hotel manager and Wallace Shawn's published postscript to his 1986 Obie winner "Aunt Dan and Lemon," displays considerable skill and pertinence.

The Gare, an international theater group founded in Chicago in 1982, aims for a unique, comprehensive environment. Using the Eagle Rock studio of artist Steve Huston (whose excellent work speaks for itself), director Bob Meyer achieves cerebral yet accessible results, drawing imposing solo performances from actors Thomas Joseph Carroll and Jim Ortlieb.

The posthumously published "Hughie," in which an alcoholic gambler eulogizes the dead title character to Hughie's successor, is, as O'Neill himself said, "written more to be read than staged." This reading omits the clerk's lines, and Ortlieb's postmodernist attack traces the resulting monodrama with truly awesome concentration.

Shawn's "Aunt Dan" investigates morality, and its "Appendix" -- literally written to be read more than staged -- expands on the topic through incisive personalization. The ingratiating Carroll nails lines like "I have found, through my government, a sneaky way to do some terrible things" in a manner resembling Carl Reiner doing Bertolt Brecht.

The presentation suggests an American variation on a European salon or an unusually intriguing Book Soup event. This may be problematic for those who value the kinetic over the literate, but devotees of thought-provoking, relevant fare and impressive acting should have no such reservations.

-- David C. Nichols

"Hughie" and "The Appendix," Gare St. Lazare Players, 1302 Yosemite St., Eagle Rock. Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $15. (323) 662-7377. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

*

Even streamlined, 'Peer' bogs down

"Peer Gynt," Ibsen's "dramatic poem," was based on the old Norwegian folk tale about the narcissistic scoundrel Peer Gynt, whose wild and sometimes supernatural exploits have given many a post-Freudian academician plenty of grist for scholarly dissertations.

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