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In 1953, Tennessee Williams sent the equivalent of a neutron bomb to Broadway. He wrote Camino Real to demolish theatrical realism. Don Quixote, the archetypal antirealist, falls asleep and envisions a new kind of theater, “the disturbing pageant of a dream.” A hallucinatory, generic bouillabaisse, Camino’s a prison break from conventions. Among other things, it was the first play on Broadway where actors broke through the fourth wall and ran up the aisles.

Camino was also Williams’s most personal and overtly political play. He set it in Tierra Caliente, a Latin American police state where the word “brother” is taboo. But that’s just a thin disguise for Red Scare America of the early ’50s. In this sense, the play devises entrapments within confinements. First-night critics created another one. Except for Brooks Atkinson, for whom it moved like music, they loathed every word. When Camino bombed on Broadway, Williams became so depressed he almost quit writing.

As I watched UCSD’s production, which closed last weekend, I was surprised at how Williams’s radical innovations have become so familiar: rip down the fourth wall, incorporate dreams, multiply genres and timescapes, expose the functions of realism. One could almost argue that Camino became a template for the experimental theater of the ’60s.

The play’s a pioneer. It’s at least a generation or two ahead of its time. Williams was doing this stuff in ’53? No way! Imagine where he could’ve gone if the critics had let him go.

The title refers not to “the King’s Highway,” but to KAMino Reel — the English pronunciation — a forlorn limbo where legends wind up when past their prime and decency wastes away. Even the fountain in the plaza is dry. Guards, and a sinister overseer named Gutman, thwart attempts to leave.

Don Quixote dreams (into the future, it turns out) of Jacques Casanova, Lord Byron, Marguerite Gautier (“Camille”), Esmeralda (from the Hunchback of Notre Dame), and Proust’s decadent Baron de Charlus. As in Casablanca (to which a stage note makes reference), they are trapped in a fascist state and desperately trying to escape. The only way out — except for Il Fugitivo, a flakey plane of uncertain origin and destination — is “terra incognita.” The “unknown territory” scares them more than the guards and the street cleaners for whom every day is the Day of the Dead.

Enter Kilroy, graffiti-hero of World War II. On every flat surface of the European theater, it seemed, someone drew a bald head, two hands, and a long nose drooping over a wall, and scribbled “Kilroy was here.” He always arrived first and had since moved on. Now Kilroy is “here,” caught. His achievements are behind him, his heart’s ailing, and he can’t reconnect with the “sweet used-to-be.” More than most others, he’s resolved to escape. As a result, he suffers all the more.

While Camino is in many ways ahead of its time (Kilroy’s direct descendents include James Dean, Jack Kerouac, and the rest of “the fugitive kind”), it’s also of its era. Heavy symbolism and allegory — often spelled out — weigh down the free play of genres and themes. And the long-awaited payoffs gush with preachy sentiment (“let there be something to mean the word honor again!”).

UCSD’s production gave glimpses of the play’s magnitude but also exposed weaknesses. The set and costumes turned the tall Potiker Theatre stage into the detritus of civilization, surrounded by a chain-link fence and concertina wire. In the center, a wooden spiral staircase led to “terra incognita,” a door in the sky. Projections on the walls of buildings, some real, others abstract, made the structures as moody as characters.

Director Adam Arian (and choreographer Alicia Peterson Baskel) kept the stage in almost constant movement, but often at the expense of Williams’s language. Music intruded on speeches, as did actors trying first and foremost to entertain. As a result, the tone throughout stayed on a single, high-pitched level. These choices made the evening energetic and cartoony but erased the play’s nightmarish “Desolation Row” underpinnings.

The text needed a dramaturge. Gutman (“a lordly fat man wearing a linen suit”) recalls Sydney Greenstreet’s immense Kasper Gutman, “the fat man” in The Maltese Falcon. Yet Ross Crain played him as slick, svelte, and only superficially evil. Lord Byron had clubfoot (the character calls it “my twisted foot”), while Zachary Harrison played him hyper-affected and without a limp. There were some fine performances — especially Patrick Riley’s undaunted Kilroy — but the production hadn’t solved a basic problem: how to turn two-dimensional, symbolic figures into something more substantial than cardboard.

FIELD NOTES: Edward Albee’s topsy-turvy relation with critics resembled Williams’s. Once, when “back in fashion,” Albee wrote, “Three or four years from now I’ll be out again. If you try to write to stay in fashion, if you try to write to be the critics’ darling, you become an employee.”

Camino Real by Tennessee Williams
UCSD Theatre & Dance, La Jolla
Directed by Adam Arian; cast: Marshel Adams, Kyle Anderson, Heather Cadarette, Cate Campbell, Zoe Chao, Mark Christine, Ross Crain, Zachary Harrison, Hugo Medina, Evan Powell, Patrick Riley, Daniel Rubiano; scenic design, Ian Wallace; costumes, Alina Bokovikova; lighting, James Tan; sound, Omar Ramos; choreographer, Alicia Peterson Baskel
Run concluded.

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