Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Naked Boxer on the Royal Way

March 05, 2012


The thing about writing on the work of Calixto Bieito is that it puts one in the position of writing about things one normally wouldn’t in polite company. Things like anal sex. And in case you’re wondering there’s that and plenty more where it came from in Bieito’s American directorial debut, a new adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real opening at The Goodman Theater in Chicago! which I saw in a preview last weekend. (Yes, I know that Bieito directed a touring production that was featured at BAM in the late 90s, but this is new original work specifically for the U.S.) Bieito, for the uninitiated is the undisputed emperor of shock-tactics opera throughout Europe, which of course makes him public enemy number one for American opera companies who’ve used his work, albeit through indirect references, as a marketing and fundraising tool in this country. (“You know we're doing a good job running this opera company because we’re NOT ALLOWING THAT EUROPEAN STUFF TO HAPPEN HERE!”) But opera audiences are an awfully easy group to shock, so the Goodman’s Robert Falls thought now might be the time to invite Mr. Bieito to the U.S.

After some discussion, the two settled on Williams’ late, poetic and controversial flop about the dead-end of 20th-century American culture. Williams’ original play concerns an American boxer named Kilroy who finds himself stranded in an anonymous Latin American desert along the Camino Real. The pronunciation is deliberately anglicized and often shifting throughout the course of the work. The local resort, the Siete Mares, is populated with a variety of famous literary characters who have also come to the end of the road inside Williams' own imagination including Lord Byron, Marguerite Gautier, Cassanova, Esmerelda and Don Quixote. Williams’ play eschews narrative for poetic dreamlike sequences, which could be seen as a precursor to anything David Lynch has ever bothered to put on film. Enter Bieito and his writing collaborator Marc Rosich who elected to largely rework the play dropping scenes and dialog and replacing them with Williams’ words from other places and his own embellishments to give the show a unique perspective on this most American of plays.

So what do you get? As it turns out nearly two uninterrupted hours of fascinating if no less elliptical conjecture about a culture, if not a world, winding down and crumbling in on itself. The first thing that should be said about the piece is how absolutely fantastic it looks. The show is operatic in scope with one arresting visual sequence after another. There's a sky full of neon lit signs, a sea of police lights, and multiple spinning mirror balls. All of this transpires on a empty black stage backed with a multi-panel chain-link fence. It looks as modern as can be, and the entire 13-member cast stays on stage most of the time, each in their own unique little world. Of course, the drama comes from how these little worlds collide, which they do repeatedly often with graphic results. Some get shot, others have their heart cut from their chest. Virtually everyone is sexually humiliated at some point. All of this was absorbed by Sunday’s audience with apparent ease.

But that doesn’t mean the overall story goes down easily. The evening begins with Don Quixote, who Bieito dresses as Williams himself, stumbling onto the stage disheveled, drink in hand, pulling his roll-aboard luggage. He drinks and throws up several times, finally guzzling down a bottle of pills to fall off to sleep. The play is mostly his dream of the Camino Real, which is not unlike the Eagles' Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Though several characters do try along the way. There is a sort of mayor character named Gutman modeled after Sydney Greestreet's character in The Maltese Falcon and a police officer who serve to remind everyone else of their fate in the off chance they begin to forget. The show is littered with musical performances often sung by a blind woman, La Madrecita de los Perdidos, in intentionally anglicized Spanish. There’s a powerful number André De Shilds dressed as Baron de Charlus sings a version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ "I Put a Spell On You" amid a crowded stage of luggage abandoned during false escape attempts. Kilroy, the boxer, whom we later find out is not quite the champion we thought, arrives and is soon sucked into the events as much of his clothing is lost. While there is not actual nudity in the show, a Bieito staple on the opera stage, there is still plenty of flesh on display and the ungroped crotch in this performance is a rarity.

But most intriguing about the show is how much Bieito shifts the focus away from Kilroy in favor of the resort's famous and infamous inhabitants. Most of these legendary visitors are in fact Europeans, and once Kilroy has been side-lined as a patsy, they more or less work on chewing each other up and spitting each other out. While the tragedy of the piece does come back around to the boxer in the end, Bieito’s take on things came off to me as a globalizing gesture. America both loved and reviled for its domination of world culture, has run out of options and now waits as a sacrificial lamb to the world it has helped create. Just as the days of Yankee imperialism aren’t what they used to be, the critique of the bankruptcy of American culture has become a critique of a global one.

The show is funny, often seriously so, and the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent having made total commitments to this abstract, sometimes dark vision of the inside of a particular artistic mind. I won't name them all here, but you should go experience all the performances first hand. And while it's not an edge-of-your-seat thriller, Bieito's thoughtful multi-layered text on an already abstract work left me wanting to see it again right away. It runs in Chicago through April 8.



Thank you for this thoughtful and respectful review. I wish I'd read it before the play. There is so much happening on stage, it is hard to track let alone understand.
I especially appreciate your interpretation of Kilroy. I knew he represented USA, but I didn't understand the director's intent....Your explanation is more thoughtful and seems more true than the explanation I'd imagined.
I did leave feeling repulsed. I knew it was a commentary on our culture. Not pretty. Not titillating in any way.
I'm just chomping at the bit to see some Bieito. His stage pictures are an art unto themselves! There are a couple of Bieito DVD's on the market, but I'm trying to get my hands on some footage of his Aida at Basel. Amazing!
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