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Theater review: 'Camino Real' at Boston Court Performing Arts Center

February 17, 2011 |  4:30 pm

CaminoRealTo claim that "Camino Real" was Tennessee Williams' best play, as former New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes once did, is like saying you prefer a band's deep tracks to its hits: It marks you as a hard-core fan.

Less-committed viewers have had a tougher time embracing Williams' experimental reverie -- now being staged at Boston Court Performing Arts Center -- which debuted on Broadway in 1953 to confusion and annoyance. On a dead-end street in some Latin American police state, characters drawn from literature and history (Casanova, Camille, Lord Byron) as well as Williams' imagination (Kilroy, a former boxing champ with a heart problem) struggle to understand their destiny, connect and escape — or at least avoid the Street Sweepers who carry off the dead. Their fragmented efforts proceed with the logic of a nightmare through 16 “blocks,” or scenes, announced by the despotic overseer of their misery, the hotel manager Gutman. 

Ahead of its time, “Camino Real” won admiration as audiences caught up, but it remains daunting to produce.

This collaboration between the Theatre@Boston Court and the CalArts School of Theater, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, approaches the challenge with great brio. Always generous to actors, Williams crammed his play with star turns, and many of the performers here — an ensemble of 21 students and professionals — shine.

Matthew Goodrich embodies the sweet, pugnacious über-Southern boy Kilroy so naturally that the role could have been written for him. Cristina Frias plays the Gypsy as a chatty, good-natured cynic; as her daughter, the prostitute Esmerelda, the stunning Kalean Ung is a powerful mixture of innocence and temptation.

On the other hand, neither Tim Cummings nor Marissa Chibas can overcome the bleakness of the love affair Williams dreamed up between an aging Casanova and a jaded Camille. Brian Tichnell’s Gutman has a glib, sinister charm that initially is compelling but eventually (16 “blocks” later) grows monotonous.

Kubzansky’s efficient staging keeps focus even in crowded scenes. The choreography also provides a visual through-line: Whenever Gutman announces a new “block,” the actors jerk through mechanical movements like malfunctioning clockwork figures. The simple, effective set by Dorothy Hoover puts a photo booth at the top of the ladder to the Terra Incognita beyond, where would-be escapees face the flashbulb. Even these innovations lose impact, though, after three hours. Sustaining the spark of hope that Williams all but buried in his relentless vision of how the world crushes and perverts human dreams might be impossible; the moments when this production finds it, as in a fragile love scene between Kilroy and Esmerelda, are rare but radiant. 

-- Margaret Gray

"Camino Real," Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 13. $32; $27 students/seniors. (626) 683-6883 or Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

Photo: Kilroy (Matthew Goodrich, center) fights off the Street Sweepers (Murphy Martin, left, and Frank Raducz Jr.), harbingers of death on the Camino Real.  Credit: Ed Krieger.