Theater Review - Unreal estate

PushPush inaugurates new space with Camino Real

Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real conjures itself like something dreamed by an expatriate American hooked on the native intoxicant of a Third World nation. Self-consciously poetic and allegorical, Camino Real alternates between lovely lyricism and dense ambiguity. In real life, the phrase El Camino Real refers to several highways that connect the United States with Mexico. Williams uses it as both a road and its terminus in a nameless Latin American country, a dead end for the formerly wealthy as well as the perpetually poor.

Camino Real turns out to be an odd choice for PushPush Theater’s first production in its new space, a converted warehouse on Decatur’s New Street. The company inaugurates its new home with a play about characters stranded in a town and desperate to escape. Between the text’s mysteries and some of the production’s most thoughtful choices, PushPush’s Camino Real fires the imagination, even though it never fully satisfies. The play’s overall vagueness feels like an itch you can’t quite scratch.

Literary figures make up some of the town’s populace, such as Don Quixote (Nick Rhoton), who wanders out of the desert. Casanova (Dikran Tulaine) and Camille’s Marguerite (Shelby Hofer) have grown into a pair of jaded lovers. White-suited Gutman (Tim Habeger), named for Sidney Greenstreet’s Maltese Falcon role, serves as an all-purpose authority figure, narrating the play and even running the lights and musical cues.

Kilroy (Daniel Pettrow), an all-American dynamo and innocent, arrives hoping for some fun, but he finds cruel and inhumane behavior instead. Kilroy’s exploits, such as wearing a clown suit and a blinking red nose, give the play its greatest urgency. He later becomes champion of a festival where the moonlight “restores the virginity” of young gypsy Esmeralda (Lauren Gunderson). Kilroy’s private time with Esmeralda, in which the rules of a sexual transaction vie with genuine sentiment, becomes a moment of vintage Williams.

PushPush stages Camino Real with visiting artists from Houston’s Infernal Bridegroom Productions, including Anthony Barilla, who composed the show’s repetitious yet haunting music. Given the surreal nature of the action, the production deliberately makes unrealistic choices. John Harris’ design of a luxury hotel features unpainted wood and lights dangling from the rafters, so you can’t tell where the set ends and the backstage begins.

A narrow, central alley commands Harris’ set, which features graffiti-like drawings of impoverished businesses instead of actual storefronts.

Generally, the new playhouse looks to be bigger and more flexible than PushPush’s former home in the Floataway Building, but it remains a high-ceilinged yet intimate performing space.

Director Jason Nodler effectively stages the play’s group scenes and most cinematic moments, such as the “street cleaning” scene in which two sinister, laughing girls remove dead bodies on a red wagon. The production’s most intense moment occurs when swarms of people clamor for a flight out on a passenger plane that makes an unscheduled landing and departure.

Pettrow portrays Kilroy with the verbal assertiveness of a comedic character actor from the 1950s. Otherwise, the show’s 17 actors seldom seem to be the nationality of their roles as written, and some of the doubling of performers falls flat. Habeger makes Gutman appropriately ruthless, but, playing an effete baron, he proves about as fey as Humphrey Bogart. Rhoton strikes a nice blend of idealism and world-weariness as Quixote, but as the poet Byron, he merely stands still and speaks slowly.

Trent Merchant provides the most witty and forceful approach to his multiple roles. He switches from brutal police officer to snippy waiter to a brothel’s intrusive madam, in each case holding strangers to uncomfortable scrutiny.

PushPush never induces the audience to fall completely under Camino Real’s spell. The show’s hallucinatory qualities draw us in and shove us away more or less equally. But at best it offers a memorable portrait of an existential dead zone, like Heartbreak Hotel or the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.