Theater Interview: Beau Jest Sets Up Shop on Tennessee Williams’ s “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real”

It is important for audiences to go to “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real” with an open mind. Do not expect a play like “The Glass Menagerie.” Go to hear a youthful Tennessee Williams’s marvelously poetic voice soaring in an unbridled, expressionistic way.

Ten Blocks on the Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Davis Robinson. Staged by Beau Jest Moving Theatre at the Charlestown Working Theater, Boston, MA, May 10 through 20. The production will move to the Lucid Stage, Portland, ME, May 24 through 26.

By Bill Marx

After seeing Beau Jest’s powerful 2009 world premiere production of Tennessee Williams’s late play The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, I dreamed of a rematch, even though Williams represents a departure from the company’s customary expressionistic blend of music, lyricism, choreography, pathos, and roustabout comedy. But as Davis Robinson, the troupe’s artistic director, wrote in a commentary for The Arts Fuse on the occasion of Williams’s 100th birthday, he became fascinated by the original version of Camino Real while researching LeMonde: “Talk about poetic with no plot! Its a lovely, mysterious, allegorical play that deserves a full production. I think the world is more ready for it now, in all its fractured and mysterious beauty.”

But along the way Robinson became convinced that an earlier version of this notoriously difficult play — Williams’s first full-throttle protest against realism failed miserably when it premiered on Broadway in 1953 — was superior, and it is Ten Blocks on the Camino Real that he is bringing to Boston and then to Portland, Maine.

This production promises to expand the considerable pleasures of Beau Jest’s LeMonde, which explored the surreal side of Williams’s genius. I sent Robinson some questions about the challenges presented by a staging, his passion for a script that has tantalized and frustrated many directors, and the appeal now of what many consider to be one of Williams’s most pessimistic plays.

Arts Fuse: How much of a departure is Ten Blocks on the Camino Real for Beau Jest? Why this play now?

Beau Jest’s Davis Robinson — Tennessee Williams was ALWAYS an experimental playwright who considered himself a poet first and playwright second.

Davis Robinson: It’s actually a pretty natural progression. Our early work had a strong sense of humor and an imaginative physical and visual style that is well-suited to Tennessee’s expressionistic work. You need a sense of humor and irony to do a play like The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde, and I think people underestimate what a wicked sense of humor Tennessee had, albeit one with deep roots in human suffering. Doing a couple of his shorter plays tweaked our interest, and this feels like a completion of that journey. We will be returning to our roots and writing an original show after this one, but first we felt compelled to explore Ten Blocks.

Why now? It is a parable of America losing its innocence, realizing it is not on top and in control. It was written during the McCarthy era when America was recovering from the horrors of war and fearful of plunging into chaos. I think we are at a tipping point as a nation. Our sense of invulnerability is deeply cracked; we don’t trust the government, the courts, institutions, each other, and a darker, more cruel world seems to be pressing in post- 9/11 as people grasp for the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and other movements for solutions.

It’s also the personal story of Tennessee’s own romantic ideals and his fear of dying. Death literally haunts everyone in this play. We as artists are older now. We’ve all seen more of bodies aging and misfortune striking. The play has a festive side, but it’s couched in the Dias De Los Muertos traditions of Mexico, which is so different from our culture’s view of death. It’s a good time for us to look at mortality, to return to the question what’s it all for? Why are we here? How do we find strength to soldier on while embracing the absurdity of it all?

And finally, it’s an important play in the current re-evaluation of Williams’s work. To get a fuller picture of Tennessee as a writer, you have to see this show. In his early work, characters tended to be more sympathetic. In his later work, they often tilted more towards outrageous and unjust actions. This play was pivotal. Many believe the biggest change in his writing took place between the two versions of Camino. In the early Ten Block version, there is a definite tilt towards hope. In the Sixteen Block version, the scale tips the other way, leading to the headline Streetcar Named Despair in the New York Times review of 1953.

Ellen Powers and Robin Smith as The Street Sweepers (Masks by Libby Marcus) in TEN BLOCKS ON THE CAMINO REAL. Photo: Davis Robinson

AF: In a letter to Brooks Atkinson written after the critical drubbing handed out to the 1953 Broadway premiere of Camino Real, Williams argues that “a lot of the grotesque comedy in this work, and I think that is its dominant element, even though all of it had a serious import back of it, is traceable to the spirit of the American comic-strip and the animated cartoons, where the most outrageous absurdites give the greatest delight.” Seen in this light, the play is tailor-made for a company that gave us a live-action version of the comic strip Krazy Kat. How close to a cartoon will your staging be?

Robinson: Good of you to pick up on that connection! This show does have a lot of Krazy Kat resonances. Krazy Kat was set in a mythic, timeless desert in the Southwest. Camino is in an unnamed country surrounded by desert and mountains. Coconino County had archetypal characters, everyone in Camino is from a fictional or mythic source. Krazy Kat had Herriman’s crazy blend of poetry, New Orleans patois, and pop culture idioms, Camino’s language borrows from gangster movies, Spanish idioms, and TW’s poetic riffs with a jazz/improvisational feel.

There are touches of physical comedy, but the playing style is more musical and expressionistic, what Tennessee called “plastic theater.” Images are brought to life and dissolve in quickly shifting tableaus; gestures are more lyrical than cartoon-like. The set is like a moving painting that fluidly rearranges for each block to create different dioramas rather than a play with traditional “scenes” and a single plot. The characters are written in a presentational way, like a cartoon, but the action is more phantasmagoric ritual, an evening of dreams that evoke clouds passing by in a gale. Both shows do share a desire for wild flights of fancy, jump-cut transitions, and surprising new images and characters at every turn. Tennessee sought a feeling of freedom with this play and asked that the music, the dances, the masks, and the action suggested by poetic monologues work together to evoke a sense of mystery, sadness, and wonder. That is what we have tried to do.

And yes, it wouldn’t be a Beau Jest show if I didn’t tell you there is a comic chase scene and a skeleton dance. But after all, that is in the script!

AF: Lyrical, phantasmagorical, allegorical — this 1953 Williams script has been considered problematic since its disappointing premiere. Fifty years have gone by, and the off-Broadway theater the play anticipated is established. What are some of the challenges posed by the script today for performers? For audiences?

Robinson: For performers, the big challenge is how to act it. Do you talk out to the audience? Is this a beat-poetry moment? Are we in a Humphrey Bogart movie here? What do we do with all those words and images? It’s a mix of emotional, presentational, naturalistic, and ritualistic. It does not play like a traditional show with actions and objectives. The original production failed in part because Kazan and the Actor’s Studio actors who were in it were too locked into a realistic approach. The language must be ignited by music, imagery, and action. Each Block is a mystery that must be solved, and the net effect of how those blocks build upon one another is neither clear nor obvious. To impose a meaning takes away from the essential mystery and simplicity of the story, and yet you must still satisfy an audience’s need for catharsis.

It’s also really hard to keep pronouncing the show the way Tennessee asked—CAH mino REAL—everyone wants to accent it!

Robert Deveau and Lisa Tucker as Casanova and Marguerite (Camille). Photo: Lauren Hallal

For audiences, the REALLY big difference to be aware of is that we are doing the original Ten Block one act from 1946; a much leaner, more elegant, and mysterious piece of writing than the 1953 Camino Real. I think it is a better script. If we can demonstrate its vitality, I hope the estate will release rights for Ten Blocks to other companies. It might be another Ubu Roi -— it’s that open to interpretation. For now, the full-length Camino Real is the only version allowed. We had to do a lot of negotiating to get the rights to the original.

It is also important for audiences to go with an open mind. Do not expect a play like The Glass Menagerie. Go to hear a youthful Tennessee’s marvelously poetic voice soaring in an unbridled, expressionistic way. Go expecting to see an absurd fantasy blending touches of Herriman, Pinter, and Beckett. Go to hear live musical accompaniment as musicians play with the actors to follow the rhythm of the language, to add to its power and dynamics. It’s a jazz-age concerto more than it is a “play” in the traditional sense of the word.

AF: You became interested in producing Ten Blocks on the Camino Real after staging a late Williams play. How has that shaped your approach to this script, which was written during the playwright’s prime?

Robinson: The wild physical imagery and the absurd sense of humor in that late play opened our eyes to how much of an experimentalist Tennessee always was. Like many, we took for granted the common belief that TW was a washed up drug addict in his last decades and that most of his late writing was not nearly as interesting as his masterpieces from the 40s and 50s. But our research showed, and the people who run the Festival in Provincetown confirmed, that Tennessee was ALWAYS an experimental playwright who considered himself a poet first and playwright second.

The watershed moment for Tennessee as an experimenter was Camino Real. Here was a play written at the peak of his powers, so the drug abuse narrative didn’t fit. The driving force behind the play came from a strong and young voice. Why did it fail? What was missing from the original staging? Was it an inferior play, or just something ahead of its time? We read the Broadway-version of Camino Real and were not very taken with it. But when we heard from David Kaplan, curator of the Provincetown Festival, that the original 10-block version of the script was being published, we were intrigued. We found it much more interesting and knew we had our next project: to fully stage the original play and to do our best to apply Beau Jest’s sense of theatricality, movement, and innovative storytelling to faithfully bringing to life every image and line in the original.

AF: What is your approach to the material? A recent Goodman Theater production of Camino Real virtually reinvented the play, adding characters and ignoring stage directions. Will you be taking major changes? If so, why? If not, why not?

Robinson: We are remaining as faithful to the text as possible. I feel its our duty to think about what the playwright wants, to make sure that we serve that vision, and work within the rigor imposed by the script. Otherwise, don’t bill it as that play. I think the Goodman production erred in calling it Camino. They should have said more clearly how much Calisto Beito had rewritten the script and called it something else. Which doesn’t mean directors can’t be imaginative. I thought Lee Breuer’s version of Doll’s House was brilliant and absolutely faithful to the script. The spirit of the play as envisioned by Ibsen was staged for a contemporary twenty-first-century audience, and that is an important role directors play in keeping historical works relevant: rediscover the power and glory of the original intent of the work and translate it so that it speaks to the times in which it is being staged. That is the stance we are trying to take with this play.

AF: The play deals with a city whose central fountain has dried up—”The spring of humanity has gone dry in this place.” Williams was talking the aridity of post-war America. It seems to me that its original critics not only reacted against the play’s disdain for realism but saw the text as an attack on postwar American posterity. Do you see connections with what is going on in the country today?

Robinson: The gap between the rich and the poor nowadays is reaching pre-IRS days again in this country. The “new normal” in the job market is unsettling. There is a loud and clear critique of out-of-control capitalism in the play and an underlying sense that everyone out to make a buck is involved in some kind of con game. Many people today can identify with what the Gypsy says over the loudspeaker in the village square: “do you wish that things could be straight and simple again, as they were in your childhood? Would you like to go back to Kindy-Garden?” Now that corporations are people, a line like Casanova’s complaining that “the government is really just a big corporation in which a few are stockholders and the rest are petty wage-slaves” has a special significance. But even though it may be TW’s most directly political play, I don’t think that’s why he wrote it. It was his desire to capture the world we live in with “a sort of mysticism . . . . I want that to stand, and I want it to be a very new and enthralling piece of theatre.”

Ellen Powers (as villager) and Kathleen Lewis (Esmeralda) rehearsing on the set under construction (designed by Judy Gailen). Photo: Davis Robinson.

AF: What is your favorite scene or speech in the play? And why?

Robinson: I love the scene by the fountain when Camille talks about her youth and we see someone described as a kind of perfect young love. The dance we found to go with that monologue feels like a perfect match, and I never tire of watching it.

Gutman (the Sidney Greenstreet character from Casablanca who is the symbolic capitalist in the play) has a great monologue on bars, nightlife, and humanity in which he reflects simply on all of it being lost someday. It reminds me of the line in the Mahabaratha when Yudhishthira answers Krishna’s question about what is the greatest mystery of all” — That we are surrounded by death every day, and yet we live as if we were immortal.” I think that paradox is at the heart of this play. It’s something Tennessee felt and wrote about every day of his life. In every play, that friction surfaces, the joy at the beauty and fragility of life coupled with a deep sense of the underlying dreadfulness and cruel streak in the universe. But favorite? After four months of working on it, I hear something new in the play at every rehearsal. I most enjoy the ongoing discoveries this play seems to offer with each layer we peel back.

1 Comment

  1. Rory on April 25, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Excellent interview Bill. Sounds like a fascinating production. Can’t wait to see it.

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