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When I first read in the Goodman Theatre press release last year that the 2011-2012 season will include a new production of Tennessee William’s Camino Real to be adapted and directed by the controversial Spanish director Calixto Bieito, I got that somewhat-nauseated, partly-titillated sense of anticipation usually reserved for bungee jumps or an e-Harmony first date – am I ready for this? Is Chicago ready for this?  I’ve been reading about Bieito in various opera blogs over the years, and I’ve been flabbergasted by the accounts of his deconstructed opera productions which elicit both passion and outrage in equal measure: a violent Aida in Basel transported into a European football stadium, with no pyramids in sight; an infamous Don Giovanni in London set in a Madrid parking lot and chockfull of drug-crazed orgies and anal rape; an ultra-sexual Abduction of Seraglio in Berlin set in a, well, sex club; a see-it-to-believe-it Parsifal in Stuttgart updated to some post-apocalyptic world with a, gulp, zombie chorus. Will there be fornicating zombies, then, at the Goodman, or something even more depraved?  And how will Chicago theater audiences, known for its inherent Midwestern reserve, but also for its embrace of the maverick and risk-taking, respond to a director who has managed to shock and awe “been-there, seen-that” global cultural capitals like Berlin and Barcelona?  Well, I gotta say, I want to give the Goodman and its Artistic Director, Robert Falls, a rousing, extended ovation (and my subscription money for next season) for having the huge cojones to bring Bieito, truly one of the most important performing arts directors in the world, to Chicago. His version of Camino Real is dazzlingly dreamlike, both painful and wondrous in its beauty, a masterful piece of theater that is not commonly seen around these parts.  And I feel very strongly that for Chicago to truly claim its place as a global cultural capital, our audience needs to see and embrace work by someone like Bieito who operates in a unique, elevated artistic realm. Otherwise, we should just be happy to remain flyover country.

No blog post or theater review can prepare you for the experience of Bieito’s Camino Real.  And I will leave it to Chicago’s myriad theater critics, bloggers, and other arts and culture pundits to dissect, debate, dismiss Bieito’s interpretation and reconception of Williams’ writing. From the Ledge has always been about the impact of a theatrical production on a paying, artistically savvy, informed audience member’s point of view – and boy, this audience member will gladly fork over his hard-earned buckaroos to see over and over again theater that is this grand and original in vision and ambition.  Bieito and his brave cast and imaginative designers have created a haunted, sensual world of failed dreamers, aging hedonists, repressed queens, loathsome authority figures, and intriguing misfits all trapped in a place called Camino Real which seems to be too grotesque to be real, yet too palpably sad and heartbreaking to be a figment of the imagination.

The play’s visuals are stunningly cinematic – frequent Bieito collaborator Rebecca Ringst’s larger-than-life set pieces (a dizzying, gasp-inducing collection of neon signs, two muscular lines evoking either an airplane runaway or a deserted highway) and James F. Ingalls’ impressive lighting design, alternatively moody and harsh, bring into vivid life a border town world that recalls both the realism of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Babel and the surreal dreamscape of the best of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  The score, which marvelously combines original compositions of Williams’ work set to music from co-adapter Marc Rossich and Richard Woodbury, Spanish ballads, and even the rock and roll classic “I Put a Spell On You” (sung with desperate fervor by Tony nominee Andre  De Shields), gives the play a mellifluous melancholy, so appropriate for a show about people at the end of their rope, and possibly, the end of their days, with nowhere to go.

And Bieito coaxes some hypnotic, masterful, no-holds-barred performances from his largely Chicago-based cast. De Shields is riveting as the lonely, worn-out Baron de Charlus, the center of one of Bieito’s most harrowing stage pictures. The incomparable Barbara Robertson leaves you slack-jawed with astonishment as the aging, grasping prostitute Rosita, pathetic yet humane, looking like Steve Tyler in drag but emanating boatloads of sadness.  Marilyn Dodds Frank is heartbreaking as a bone-tired, world-weary Marguerite Gautier, humiliated when she is unable to board the Fugitivo helicopter to escape from Camino Real.  Matt DeCaro is both menacingly loathsome and hilariously nonchalant as the prissy hotel manager Gutman.  The always-terrific Carolyn Hoerdemann is mesmerizingly bawdy and manipulative as The Gypsy, whose alleged prophesying talents make her one of Camino Real’s power-brokers.  I can go on and on with each and every member of the superb 13 person cast, who have created marvelously indelible characters that all have a sense of the garish and broken-down, but are also breathtakingly ethereal at the same time, the qualities of Bieito’s dream-nightmare world.

Do I understand everything in this production? No. And I think the usual protagonist Kilroy, despite Antwayn Hopper’s passionate performance, is less interesting in this production than the night gallery of ghoulish soulfullness surrounding him.  Do I think it represents Williams’ writing appropriately and respectfully?  I think so, since Bieito’s production has so much of the beautiful yet searing, achy, poetic quality of Williams’ best naturalistic works, from A Streetcar Named Desire to The Glass Menagerie to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, three of my favorite plays of all time that I have seen and read over and over again (and during the audience talkback at the performance I attended, several of us commented on the echoes of Williams’ oeuvre that we picked up in the production).  Do I think Camino Real is for everyone? Definitely not.  If you cried at The King’s Speech and join tour groups when you travel abroad, then you should probably stay away.  But if you love originality and challenge at the theater, and you thought Inception should have won over The King’s Speech, and you seek out exploration and unique experiences when you travel to other countries, than you should rush out to the Goodman and get your ticket.  Come to think of it, Bieito’s Camino Real is like a bolder Inception for the smart, savvy theatergoer.

Do you think Chicago is a global arts and culture capital or just a Midwestern city slightly larger than Minneapolis-St. Paul? If you think the former, than I am confident you already have your ticket to Camino Real. If not, rush out to get it! Bieito’s singular vision will be on view at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn St., until April 8. And read this New York Times article before you go.


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