The recent Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival gave audiences a chance to see the wide range of styles the playwright worked in during his long career. There were productions of a poignant early one-act, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, and the later, puzzling full-length play Camino Real.
In Larkspur Lotion (the name for a treatment for body lice), Williams shows us two lost souls living in a French Quarter boarding house in the "40s. A writer (James Still, who also directed) who puts pen to paper less frequently than he puts a bottle to lips comes to the aid of his neighbor, Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore (Joi Hoffsommer), when she is badgered by their landlady, a formidable realist named Mrs. Wire (Sandra Zielinski). Hardwicke-Moore is a frail creature who complains of flying cockroaches. She says she has hardly ever seen such cockroaches before and that those she did see were pedestrians. When Wire threatens to toss out the finicky tenant for not paying her rent, Hardwicke-Moore replies that the remittance she receives from her Brazilian rubber plantation has been delayed. Wire taunts Hardwicke-Moore that her income is derived from more lewd endeavors that take place at night with men and are often marred by arguments over the rate of pay for the services offered.
When the writer steps in and objects, Wire yells that she's done with "deadbeats, Quarter rats, half-breeds, drunkards and degenerates who try to get by on promises, lies and delusions!" Hardwicke-Moore, she says, has no Brazilian rubber plantation, and the writer has not written a word of his vaunted 780-page masterpiece. "Tomorrow morning! Money or out you go! Both of you together!" she shouts as she exits.
The two are left to commiserate. Hardwicke-Moore says there are no cockroaches on the plantation. He asks if it is far from the Mediterranean. Just a mile or two, she replies, and on a clear morning, one can see the "white cliffs of Dover." The writer passes her his pint of whiskey. She accepts it and asks his name, "Thank you, Mr. ... ?" "Chekhov. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov," he responds. And so, the play ends with gentle but bitter irony. It's a simple but deep and troubling view of life.
Camino Real, on the other hand, presents a crowd of characters trapped in a surreal cul-de-sac. It was produced in 1953, between The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it feels like late Williams. One wonders if Samuel Beckett (whose Waiting For Godot also premiered in 1953) did not contribute to Williams' abstract impulse. Beckett, however along with his Parisian existentialist cohorts tended toward minimalism rather than vast, sprawling spectacle.
There are more than 30 roles in Camino. Some of the characters are literary icons, including Don Quixote, Casanova and Lord Byron, and some like the gringo protagonist Kilroy with his golden boxing gloves are not plucked from the cultural pantheon. Camino Real means "The King's Highway." It's a common name for a main thoroughfare in Mexico and California. In Williams' imagination, the street leads nowhere; it's a weird, menacing purgatory.
When first produced, the play was not well received. The critic Walter Kerr called it, "The worst play yet written by the best playwright of this generation."
One cannot help but admire a writer who takes big chances instead of relying on the style that brought him success. Nevertheless, I must admit that I often did not understand what was going on in the play. It's curious that in a reticent, bittersweet miniature like Larkspur Lotion, we not only follow the story but are moved by the characters. In Camino's ambitious, ambivalent torrent of words, we rarely know what anyone feels or why.
The festival production at Le Petit featured a New-York-based troupe of six performers called Brooklyn on Foot. It was a poised and talented group, but when you add doubling and tripling of parts to the initial complexity, the production becomes more challenging.
Camino Real did not win me over on this outing, but I was very happy to be able to see it. Thanks to the festival for taking the risk of staging it.
- The theater company Brooklyn on Foot brought its production of Camino Real to the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.