In the theater, “caveat emptor” invariably means “as reimagined by...” Those words attached to a play’s title are a warning: Watch out. You’re entering Director World.
That’s the case with the Goodman Theatre’s revival of “Camino Real,” Tennessee Williams’s 1953 bad-acid trip of a play, as staged for this Chicago company by Calixto Bieito, with writer Marc Rosich.
Bieito is the Quentin Tarantino of the opera and theater worlds. The Catalonian director, best known for his queasy-making opera productions, hasn’t met the character who wouldn’t look better doused with blood, covered with vomit or engaged in a sexual act -- not infrequently all three simultaneously.
Ditto here. The visually arresting and oddly poignant “Camino Real” is Bieito’s “Pulp Fiction.”
Williams was following the lyric realism of “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with a vision of hell.
He created a closed-off world inhabited by a panoply of figures real and imagined, including Lord Byron, Casanova, Marguerite Gautier and Kilroy, a young boxing champion whose name was popular among U.S. soldiers who left the graffito “Kilroy Was Here” around places where they were stationed during World War II.
Each of them wants to escape; none can. And so they pass the time as thrill-seekers hawking their wares, whether sexual, philosophical or merely scatological. A decade later Bob Dylan peopled “Desolation Row” with many of the same characters and certainly the mise-en-scene.
Bieito and Rosich add a prologue in which Williams (played by Michael Medeiros), sick-drunk and stumbling, pre-enacts the playwright’s tawdry death in 1983 (Williams choked on a bottle cap in a midtown Manhattan hotel room). “There are no Lears left,” he remarks.
Think of the production as a dreamscape in which set designer Rebecca Ringst fills the stage with neon lights, smoky nights and a rope ladder out of a trapeze act, aptly suffused with day-for-night glare by lighting designer James F. Ingalls.
Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes call for a pink-and-black vinyl minidress and leopard-skin boots for a peroxide blond prostitute. The dandified Casanova laps brandy off the street while the ageless Andre De Shields, as the Baron de Charlus, reels between flamboyant swoops and angry exhortations.
And then there’s Kilroy (Antwayn Hopper) in Stars-and-Stripes boxing shorts and boasting “a heart as big as a baby’s head” (which, of course, we will eventually see for ourselves).
The visuals of this “Camino Real” are unforgiving, and unforgettable. They provoke what the Bieito/Rosich text mostly abjures: sympathy for this sordid conclave.
That’s the conundrum of “Camino Real,” whether staged by Elia Kazan or “reimagined” by Calixto Bieito: In the end, can we really overcome revulsion and empathize with this sick crew?
Yes -- even in such gruesome environs.
Here’s what I learned when Steppenwolf Theatre Company artistic director Martha Lavey interviewed Julianna Margulies, the exceedingly charming star of CBS’s “The Good Wife” on Monday before a ballroom filled with supporters of the company.
When she had her first scene with George Clooney, in “E.R.” she was supposed to die. When the network suits looked at the film, they changed their minds.
“They said,” Margulies recalled, “’Don’t take another job. I think you’re gonna live.’”
She hated living in Los Angeles. “When you have roses in your garden all year long,” said the native New Yorker, “something’s wrong.”
Casting directors, especially for commercials, thought she was Latina.
“There would always be the white girl, the black girl and me in the middle,” she recalled. “I’m Jewish!”
She hates actor divas: “Get real. Cure AIDS or cancer and I will bow down to you.”
That drew a big round of applause.
“Camino Real” is running through April 8 at 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Information: +1-312-443-3800; http://www.goodmantheatre.org. Rating: ** 1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)