Photo: Yi Zhao
After hearing that Target Margin Theater was going to produce Tennessee Williams’ 1946 one-act Ten Blocks on the Camino Real (at the Ohio Theater until January 31), we picked up a copy to take along on a trip to Guatemala. We got around to reading it a few days after New Years, on the steps of the ruined Capuchinas on Dos Avenida and the Platerias in Antigua. This is how it begins:
The audience faces a little plaza. It should have grace and mystery and sadness: that peculiar dreamlike feeling that emanates from such squares in Mexico and from the popular songs of that country.
From where we were sitting, this read like a perfectly evocative description of a Latin town square, as fragrant with the sulfur of nearby volcanoes as the New Orleans of A Streetcar Named Desire would be with the combined odors of liquor, sex and sweat. However, Williams did make a tactical error in that stage direction: he included the word “dreamlike.” Any mention of dreams is an invitation to misuse the term “surreal” ― a ubiquitous cover for sloppiness when it isn’t accurately describing the concrete art pursued by Fellini and Dalí. Target Margin artistic director David Herskovits loves the word “surreal,” and his company’s production of Ten Blocks on the Camino Real is astonishingly sloppy.
Williams wrote Ten Blocks on the Camino Real after returning from a trip to one of those Mexican towns that was so stimulating for writers like him and Ernest Hemingway and Malcolm Lowry. It is, in part, the story of Kilroy, an American ex-prizefighter who arrives in an unnamed South or Central American town and quickly finds himself in a bizarre dreamworld (that word again) inhabited by everyone from Casanova to Don Quixote. After reading it, Williams’ agent was blunt: “Don’t let anyone else see it.” Against her advice, he showed the script to Elia Kazan, who decided to workshop scenes from it at The Actor’s Studio.
It was an insightful decision: the work’s weaknesses as a play make it an ideal workshop piece. (Over this one-act’s hour, the actor playing Kilroy has to get robbed, be pursued by killers, seduce a woman, and die ― a high-minded Who’s Line Is It Anyway?) And, bizarre as the subject matter may be for Williams, the work is still psychologically precise; if anything, the subtext at every point is unusually obvious. After he gets robbed, for instance, Kilroy acts startled, then angry, then finds a cop; when he’s rebuffed, he’s confused at first, then threatens to call the American Embassy ― exactly the sort of thing Kazan trained his actors to think through.
Confronted with a work like this, what should an actor do? Prepare! Create roles! What do the players at Target Margin do? Yell, gesticulate, and make funny noises. Satya Bhaba, who plays Kilroy, might as well scream “Gadzooks!” when he discovers that he’s been pick-pocketed, and we wish that all of the missteps were so subtle. When she isn’t missing her lines altogether, Dara Seitzman, the Guitar Player, consistently mispronounces the Spanish word “para” (we know that Williams intended Camino Real to be pronounced CA-mee-no REE-ul, but don’t think he intended “para” to be pronounced “PAIR-a”); a conversation between Jacques Casanova (Raphael Nash Thompson) and Marguerite Gautier (McKenna Kerrigan) takes place with both actors facing the audience the entire time; the Three Stooges noises ― exclamation points for the mechanical acting ― are often queued up a beat early or late; The Gypsy (Kerrigan again) recites Chinese proverbs while making a “slant-eyed” face. The sets and costumes, bright and gaudy as they are, can’t distract from these basic failings, and there are many others besides.
In an article he published before the premier of the full-length Camino Real in 1953, Williams advised that “freedom is not achieved simply by working freely.” As this shamelessly inept production proves, it certainly isn’t achieved by acting and directing freely. Perhaps the best commentary on Target Margin’s efforts was made by the couple sitting behind us: they snored through the second half.
* Reading about Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, we found more than a few sources comparing it to August Strindberg’s 1901 Dream Play. We haven’t read that one, so we can’t suggest it. But it gives us an excuse to plug “Strindberg and Helium,” a series of animated shorts that premiered at Sundance in 2003. If you’re lucky enough not to have seen them yet, check them out right now.