Late Sunday night, there was a radiant light in the face of the Chicago actress Carolyn Hoerdemann. "This all reminds me of the early days of the European Rep," she said, ebulliently, referencing one of Chicago's most influential avant-garde troupes of the 1990s, and sweeping her hand around a barroom that included several bottles of wine and such game-for-anything Chicago actors as Mark Montgomery, Barbara Robertson and Ron Rains, out together for the evening with Catalan opera and theater director Calixto Bieito.
"I don't ever want this to end," Hoerdemann said, suddenly looking down at the floor, as if coming to terms with the fact that end this most surely will.
The "this" is the new Goodman Theatre production of Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real," the first work created in North America by a 48-year-old artist who was taught by Jesuits and studied art history but is known for scandalizing European opera houses from Berlin to Barcelona with scenes filled with sexual acts and intense violence. Bieito's detractors regard him as overly obsessed with human desecration; his many admirers consider his work audacious and revelatory.
It's not hard to see why Goodman artistic director Robert Falls — a man long on record as regarding the shocking of an audience as a legitimate and highly desirable aesthetic act — invited Bieito, who is far better known in Europe than the United States, to Chicago. He had tried to get Bieito to be part of the 2009Eugene O'NeillFestival, but his opera schedule was too busy.
But then Falls suggested "Camino Real," that most difficult of Williams plays, staged in 1953 by Elia Kazan, set in a barren, two-bit tropical town and featuring fictional characters and such real-life figures as Lord Byron, Jacques Casanova and Don Quixote. Therein, an archetypal and big-hearted American named Kilroy finds himself at the mercy of everything and everyone he finds. Although there was a notable production at the now-defunct Center Theatre in Chicago in the mid-1980s, "Camino Real," a flop on Broadway where Hope Abelson was one of its producers, rarely has been seen in Chicago — or anywhere else, for that matter. As former Tribune critic Richard Christiansen once wrote, it is generally regarded as "truly, a mess of a play."
But Bieito, who says he has never before directed Williams, mostly because he did not want to do so with Europeans, bit down on Falls' offer. Especially because Falls already had secured an agreement from the Williams estate (which knew Bieito's work and trusted him) that would allow Bieito to insert poems and other Williams material into the piece, and generally mess around with the structure as he saw fit.
In person, Bieito has a modest, quiet demeanor and a humble line in rhetoric, praising Chicago actors (they are, he said, "shockingly good" and have allowed him to fully understand Williams for the first time) and the Chicago skyline. One has the sense he does not want to roar into the U.S. as a provocateur.
"I am not a political director," he says. "At this time in my life, I'm more interested in poetry and spirituality. I hope this will be very much an American show, but from the point of view of someone who is not an American."
And, he says, he has enormous respect for his material.
"This is a wonderful play, an extremely avant-garde masterpiece, and a precursor of Fassbinder or Jean Genet," he said of his Goodman assignment, insisting that he was trying to approach it with as much humility as possible. "But Williams did not want to be a play writer so much as a poet here. All of his poetry is inside this play. There is not a real plot, just characters lost in the middle of the void."
That void, Bieito says, has possibilities and ramifications.
"I know in Europe at least, we are all quite lost at the moment," Bieito said. "That void is a wonderful metaphor for the moment."
Nonetheless, reports from readers who have attended previews this week have referenced large numbers of audience members headed early for the exits (not uncommon elsewhere in the world at a Bieito production) and copious amounts of extreme violence, including a partial human dissection and spurting blood.
Bieito says he has been sitting in the audience some during previews.
"I think some people are a little bit shocked," he said, quietly. "My intention is to provoke thoughts and emotions. I think, I hope, they are being shocked in a very nice way."
"Camino Real" opens Sunday and runs through April 8 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; $25-$79 at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org
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