Off the Wall's "Camino Real" is a trip through Tennessee Williams' dark mind.
Off the Wall's "Camino Real" is a trip through Tennessee Williams' dark mind. (Photo: Dale Gutzman)

"Camino Real" a journey through the dark halls of Tennessee Williams' mind

Tennessee Williams, perhaps the greatest American playwright, created worlds that theater audiences have loved for decades.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Glass Menagerie," "Sweet Bird of Youth" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" all came from the mind of a tortured and troubled soul who managed to find a special kind of humanity in all the stories he told.

And then you have "Camino Real," which is probably the least-produced plays Williams ever wrote. It ran for only 60 performances on Broadway before it closed.

Perhaps the greatest strength that Williams had was to create characters who were alive and deep, who suffered and exalted and who made us care deeply about what happened to them.

"Camino Real," which opened Wednesday night at Off the Wall Theatre, has almost none of that.

There is virtually no story. The characters are far fetched and almost unbelievable.

Having said that, this is still an important play and one that every theater fan should go to see. It is mesmerizing, much as car wreck holds your attention or a brawl between two drunks in a bar makes you gather round.

Fanciful doesn’t begin to describe what happens in this play. It would be more apt to call this the most absurd kind of theater with the belief that there is a message somewhere in this mess, but it’s virtually impossible to find it.

The plot, such as it is, centers on an American named Kilroy who finds himself in an unnamed town that has touches of Latin America and New Orleans. The town is a refuge from any semblance of real life and it is populated by the strangest menagerie of misfits you’ve ever seen.

There is a Gypsy and her slut of a daughter, Esmerelda, Lord Byron, an elderly and decrepit Casanova and assorted knaves, knights and killers.

The town is a reprehensible way station for those with no place to go. The outlook for each of them is bleak. Some are paired off with others while some wander alone, never finding any kind of relationship, even one offered in such a disastrous setting.

There is shock here. Gunshots and whippings and sado-masochism and elderly abuse and untold amounts of sorrow. There are those who may be shocked by some of the things that happen on the stage, but rather than be shocked, it’s more likely to pique your endless curiosity.

Dale Gutzman lives up to his well won reputation as the most dangerous man in Milwaukee theater by directing this large cast of actors into a disciplined dance that has no music or steps.

Gutzman also plays The Poet, a dissolute character not in Williams’ script but one who was added with the permission of the Williams estate. This Poet is clearly the persona of the playwright himself, addled by booze and troubled by destruction both physical and moral.

There are some outstanding performances and moments in this play.

We can start with Marilyn White, a frequent presence on Gutzman’s stages. She plays Marguerite Gautier, an aged courtesan who, as she says, "once was paid for love, but now I must pay for love." White is an engaging presence on any stage and in this one she truly sinks her teeth into a woman who wants to escape, but she doesn’t know how or to where.

Alexandra Bonesho, one of the brightest young actors in Milwaukee, does a splendid turn as Esmerelda, the daughter of the Gypsy who has her virginity restored by the moon during a festival. Bonesho is very sexy but she finds a place to take Esmerelda that is not just a sexpot but a woman filled with yearnings and passions and skepticism about what her life is truly about.

Off the Wall regulars Jeremy C. Welter (Casanova) and the magnetic Claudio Parrone Jr. (Gutman) both bring their fierce magnetism to moments of high drama and soulless but evocative emotion.

The play is filled with monologues that are outlets for the fire that burned in Williams. The language, which was the mark of a Williams play, is spectacular.

It was left to Lord Byron, played by Robert Hirschi who has been involved with Off the Wall since it started, to have the single line that best captures what Williams was after in this play. Standing on the center of the stage with a suitcase by his side, Hirschi announces his escape.

"The heart," he says, "is what translates noise into music."

"Camino Real" runs through June 14 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

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