Camino Real dives into the absurd

Kilroy was here

After Low's one-song performance last month at Rock the Garden, there has been a lot of talk about artistic expression, audience expectations, and the need to subvert those expectations (and possibly disappoint the audience).

I bring this up because one of the actors in Girl Friday's Camino Real compared Low's performance — and the firestorm of conversation — to their production of the Tennessee Williams play. It was an apt analogy.

Camino Real is a difficult, elliptical adventure in a surreal landscape. And there is nothing overarching to link it all together, except for the titular street where the action plays out. It was a notorious flop when it premiered in 1953, and it took decades before Camino Real's reputation improved. Part of that could be timing. Broadway audiences also hated Waiting for Godot on first sight, and these absurd landscapes were a tough sell. Some of it, however, is that the play really is a tough nut to crack.

There are plenty of plots at work throughout Camino Real. The street is described as a sort of way station on the highway to a mysterious port city. Like flotsam and jetsam, the lonely and lost have gathered on the street. A lot of these are drawn from literature (Don Quixote and Camille) or history (Casanova and Lord Byron) or just the American experience, like sort-of main character Kilroy.

There are plenty of incidents and moments in the play, but two of the plots stand out. In one, the great lover Casanova (John Middleton) and Camille (Kirby Bennett) make a stab at love despite the considerable baggage both of them carry. In the other, lost American Kilroy (Eric Knutson) looks for meaning and escape with Esmeralda (Sara Richardson), a woman who becomes a fresh innocent after every moonrise.

Beyond the setting, absurdity, and storytelling experimentation, we get into familiar Williams territory here. The sense of loss and loneliness; the bitter pain of regret; the idea that madness and ruin are just a paper-thin wall away. All of that shows up in Camino Real and makes the scenes between these pairs of characters work so well. They also give the actors something concrete to grab onto, allowing their talents to come through loud and clear.

Camino Real comes down to moments, and director Ben McGovern and the large cast make the most of these notes. David Beukema gets a great daily double as the strutting Baron de Charlus (from Proust) and Lord Byron. For the latter, Beukema plays the poet as a rock star, appearing in tight shorts and a leather vest, while telling a story about burning Shelley's corpse to a fiery guitar solo and adoring fans.

And this doesn't even get into the play's bending time frame, its blending of locations, or the confounding ending involving Kilroy and his enlarged and golden heart. I haven't even mentioned the mysterious street cleaners, who stand as a dark, constant threat.

Camino Real isn't designed to be a crowd-pleaser — no "Stella!" to look forward to — but despite the intentional obtuseness of the writing, the Girl Friday production does offer plenty of rewards for those willing to take the plunge.

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