Theater Review: Another Visit to “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real”

Tennessee Williams’s stature amongst American playwrights may be more secure then it was when he died in 1983, but companies like Beau Jest, when they stage inspired productions of previously neglected works, are expanding our appreciation of what kind of a dramatist he was.

Ten Blocks on the Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Davis Robinson. Performed by Beau Jest Moving Theatre at the Lucid Stage, Portland, ME, though May 26.

Read Terry Byrne’s Arts Fuse review of Beau Jest’s Ten Blocks on the Camino Real.

Read Arts Fuse Editor Bill Marx’s interview with the production’s director, Davis Robinson.

By Ian Thal

A moment during the rehearsal of Beau Jest’s production of TEN BLOCKS ON THE CAMINO REAL.

Ten Blocks on the Camino Real is a largely neglected play in Tennessee Williams’s canon, generally regarded as a one-act first draft of the 1953 full-length Sixteen Blocks on the Camino Real and not as a separate play in its own right. First composed in 1946 while traveling through Mexico and workshopped by Elia Kazan at the Actors’ Studio, the expanded and reworked play made its Broadway premiere in 1953. Sixteen Blocks closed after 60 performances and was seen as a financial and artistic failure. Some argue that the play’s experimental approach, which presaged Williams’s later work, alienated audiences whose expectations had been formed by The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire; Elia Kazan would later say that his naturalistic directorial approach was incompatible with the play as written.

More recently, some partisans of Camino Real‘s centrality in appraising the Williams canon have taken the position that Sixteen Blocks was an unnecessarily bloated and convoluted expansion of the original Ten Blocks, and that the addition of six more scenes and reworking of earlier material slighted the power of the shorter piece. However, for decades only Sixteen Blocks could be licensed for performance while the shorter Ten Blocks was not even available in print. Indeed, Ten Blocks on the Camino Real was only known through a 1966 television production starring Martin Sheen. This changed in 2009 when Ten Blocks was published.

While not a world premiere (director David Herskovits staged a production at New York’s Ohio Theater in 2009), Beau Jest Moving Theatre’s artistic director Davis Robinson is no stranger to Williams’s lesser-known works, having in recent years staged world premieres of American Gothic and The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde.

Williams described Ten Blocks as a foray into “plastic theatre” that expanded on the “poetic naturalism” of his better-known work of the era. While “poetic naturalism” relied on the repetition of everyday objects until they developed symbolic significance, “plastic theatre” makes use of modern narrative structures: not merely dreams (psychoanalysis was becoming fashionable at the time), but comic-strips and and cartoons, where characters could be obliterated in one scene to be fully recovered in the next.

When the house doors of the Charlestown Working Theater opened, audience members walked through the crowded plaza of the Camino Real in order to get to their seats. Street hucksters hawk merchandise: candy, bawdy postcards, flowers, palm readings, and sex, all in the pursuit of the American dollar. Above, a trio of musicians perform jazz-inflected flamenco, song and cumbia. The directorial gambit is successful: by immersing the audience as visitors to the world of Camino Real, the surreal rules and narrative logic of the unnamed town in an unnamed Latin-American country are accepted as they revealed

An emaciated, naked peasant (a puppet designed by Libby Marcus) staggers to the public fountain before being shot dead by the local police (Robin JaVonne Smith). Later, as the formally-attired, cackling street sweepers collect the corpse, Jacques Cassanova (Robert Deveau) laments to his companion, the retired courtesanMarguerite (Lisa Tucker), how a peasant can die thirsting for water in front of a hotel filled with wine. Later Cassanova is told after his credit has run out that he must find a new place to stay and that his current bottle will be his last.

Into the plaza comes Kilroy (Nick Ronan), an American, World War II veteran known for his ubiquitous cartoon likeness. Kilroy has ended both his marriage and his career as a boxing champion after doctors warned him that his heart, “as big as the head of a baby,” could burst if he took another punch or made love to his wife ever again. He flaunts his bejeweled boxing belt, lucky, golden gloves, and 50 pesos before discovering that Camino Real is where expert pickpockets ply their trade.

Ronan brings a charismatic and likable presence to Kilroy, and while it is easy to imagine Kilroy might have served alongside Streetcar‘s Stanley and Mitch during the war, Ronan’s American galoot comes off an archetype of heroic, American exuberance who arrives on a dead-end street populated by equally out-of-place, old-world, public-domain icons. Most, like Cervantes’s Quixote, Proust’s Baron de Charlus, and Picasso’s blue guitarist (all played by Jordan Harrison) are little more than art-celebrity cameos.

Others, like the Gypsy fortune-teller (Lauren Hallal) and her daughter, Esmeralda (Kathleen Lewis) from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame flourish in a village where just about everyone else seems to await death, owing perhaps in part to their meta-fictional awareness that their world is scripted and non-naturalistic: the town hosts a festival where, under the light of the moon, Esmeralda’s virginity is restored. Kilroy becomes part of the sensual farce: The mother takes his last 10 bucks, issues auguries laden with non sequiturs, gives him a tequila shot, and turns him over to her more fatalistic, but eternally virginal (or so we are told), scantily clad daughter.

A scene from the Beau Jest production of TEN BLOCKS ON THE CAMINO REAL. Photo: Stan Rowin.

Beau Jest has a reputation for well-crafted physical theater: the actors, puppets, and set (designed by Judy Gailen) all move about one another in complex ways that not only heighten the action, but create a strikingly heightened world. Karen Perlow’s lighting design brings out a striking palate of colors, while Fabian Aguilar dresses the iconic characters in equally iconic costumes. It is no coincidence that the Gypsy likens the world to a comic strip during her reading of Kilroy’s fate.

The show is further enlivened by musical score by long-time Beau Jest collaborator Don Dinicola that draws on folk songs specified in Williams’s script,  interpreted and improvised by a skillful trio led by percussionist Tamora Gooding and including jazz and flamenco guitarist Santiago Cardenas and (depending on which night) either Jon Hindmarsh or Adam Schutzman, multi-instrumentalists and foley operators.

Williams’s stature amongst American playwrights may be more secure then it was when he died in 1983, but companies like Beau Jest, when they stage inspired productions of previously neglected works such as Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, are making us reevaluate what kind of a playwright Williams was and which are his most valuable scripts.

Beau Jest’s dramaturgical blog for Ten Blocks is a valuable resource.

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