By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Benjamin Henson
Presented by The Actors’ Program
Basement Theatre, Auckland | November 5-16
There are great productions of great plays. Those are easy to review. There are also terrible productions of terrible plays, which are similarly easy to review. Middling productions of middling plays and good productions of good plays are not as easy to review. However, it’s when we get into the weird space of a good play having a bad production—or in this case of Camino Real, a bad play having a good production—that we get into murkier (and honestly, more fascinating) territory.
Camino Real is not a good play. It is a bad play by a great writer, Tennessee Williams. Sadly, a text by a great writer does not automatically make for a good play, though it does make the flaws a little bit more interesting and even understandable. There are moments of greatness Camino Real, little moments where it’s very clear that it was written by observant genius behind The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. There’s even a palpable feeling of desperation throughout. These are the aspects that The Actor’s Program’s production of Camino Real, directed by the prolific and capable Ben Henson, brings to the fore.
A plot summary is a little bit pointless. The play takes place in a sort of afterlife/between-world known as Camino Real, where some people have resigned themselves to living, and others are trying desperately to get out of. It could be an allegory for America or an allegory for the dark and depressed mindset of Williams. When I read the play a few years ago I relinquished any attempts to make sense of it and instead responded to what emotions it stirred out of me. Again, these are the aspects that this production and Henson’s direction pull from the play.
It’s an actor’s showcase of a play, at least in Henson’s adaptation, and every actor gets a chance to sign. There’s not a weak link among the cast, even throughout the smaller roles, and the ensemble as a whole lend credence to this place as an emotional reality and place it somewhere the writing can’t. Cherie Moore, as a Joan Collins-esque hotel madame, is a particular standout and anchor for the play. Despite the relatively sparse playing space, through her performance I can almost see the dead, dry sands of Camino Real and the empty despair of the town surrounding it. Almost singlehandedly, she lays the foundation for the rest of the actors to have fun with.
Another highlight is Oscar Wilson, as the bumbling Killroy. The role of audience surrogate—or at least central character—is thrown upon him and Wilson fills the role more than capably. His character is also the most formed and affecting out of the whole play; he has an arc from a man of morals and ideals to a man who just wants to get by and leave Camino Real. At the other end of the spectrum, Willa Oliver makes the most out of an underwritten character, filling the theatre with fun whenever her gypsy mother and Anthea Hill’s role as the resigned announcer of Camino Real sets the tone of the piece marvellously.
Henson’s direction wisely distracts from the text and fills it with as much texture, feeling, and surface as possible in order to bring out the sad realities of Camino Real and Camino Real. John Parker’s set design reinforces this place as a world of the in-between, one that a person may never actually escape from, and Pete Davison’s graceful lighting cements it as a perpetual purgatory. Gayle Jackson’s costume design, from a French woman’s long flowing dress to a gypsy’s beer-chugging helmet, is genius and a highlight of the production.
I don’t think you can get a great show out of Camino Real. The script is flawed on so many levels. There are very poor throughlines and some of the characters come off as overblown and overwritten in ways that Williams’s characters rarely do—but you can definitely get an entertaining show out of it. Henson and the actors graduating from The Actor’s Program have done that, and they should be commended. It’s a hell of a play to deal with and a heck of a production.