Theatre in Review: The Really Big Once (Target Margin Theatre at St. Mark's Church)
Target Margin Theatre continues its exploration of Camino Real -- one of Tennessee Williams' greatest failures -- in The Really Big Once. A 60-performance flop on Broadway in 1953, when Williams was at the height of his success, it proved to be a dark preview of his future. A largely plotless fantasy, Camino Real centers on an innocent American palooka named Kilroy who finds himself trapped in a nameless, apparently Mexican, city that is also a kind of police state. His fellow prisoners, all yearning for escape, include Lord Byron, Marguerite Gautier (a/k/a Camille), Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Kasper Gutman, the sinister figure from The Maltese Falcon. It's an allegory of flight and imprisonment. Williams' fans love to insist that Camino Real is one of his finest works, but I've yet to hear of a production that has earned any acclaim. However, in its muddied dramatic line, its flagrant use of symbols, and its wildly florid language, it points the way to the author's final decades, when, out of favor and dogged by personal demons, he produced a series of works -- The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Out Cry, and The Red Devil Battery Sign among them -- that left audiences frustrated and bored.
Last season, Target Margin staged Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, an early, one-act version of the script -- a production that did nothing to rescue the play's reputation. This season, the company has assembled The Really Big Once, which, drawing on letters, interviews, working notes, and memoirs, looks at the relationship between Williams and his director, Elia Kazan, as they worked to put Camino Real on Broadway.
Kazan steered many of Williams' Broadway successes, but, by his own admission, he couldn't do a thing with Camino Real. As The Really Big Once details, he hectored the playwright repeatedly for revisions and clarifications, trying to impose an accessible dramatic line on a script that, whatever one thinks of it, doesn't want to be clear or conventional. Williams, eager for success, apparently tried his best, but the play resisted his efforts. And if Kazan had a special knack for poetic melodramas like A Streetcar Named Desire or Sweet Bird of Youth, he was utterly at sea when it came to the avant-garde flight of fancy that is Camino Real. The director himself later admitted that he miscast the production, filling it with Actors Studio veterans whose naturalist style clashed with the text. He also pled guilty to accepting a set design from Lemuel Ayers that damaged the play.
All of this and more comes out in The Really Big Once, including plans to have Jerome Robbins choreograph it (it didn't happen); the decision not to go with their regular designer, Jo Mielziner (probably a mistake); Marlon Brando's decision not get involved, on the advice of his "spiritual adviser"; and the wild-card presence of Molly Kazan, Elia's formidable wife, who plainly and undiplomatically campaigned for wholesale cuts to the script. Also weighing in from time to time are the likes of Audrey Wood (Williams' agent), Cheryl Crawford (the hapless co-producer), and other theatre folk, like Michael Kahn and Richard Foreman.
Don't expect a straightforward dramatic presentation, however. The director, David Herskovits, tells the story in cubist fashion, with a talented young cast of five mouthing a collage-like text; everyone plays Williams and Kazan at one point or another, and speeches are assigned without regard to gender. The script follows a kind of narrative line, with many interpolations, repetitions, and digressions. Actors are directed to speak so rapidly that sometimes one can barely make out the words. Often, two or three of them speak at one time. It's almost as if the audience is being dared to make sense of it all. God help you if you attend The Really Big Once without some pre-existing sense of the players and story involved.
But, if you are already interested in this material, there is something weirdly compelling in the spectacle of watching two of the 1950s' greatest theatre men wrestle with material that is -- good or bad -- somehow beyond their collective grasp. The situation is made poignant by the obvious fact that Williams is taking such a great artistic risk, with his defenses down. It becomes very easy to see how critical comments, like those by Walter Kerr ("the worst play yet written by the best playwright of this generation") proved especially wounding.
By building an avant-garde theatre piece on the history of an avant-garde theatre piece's disastrous Broadway debut, the Target Margin troupe creates a meditation on theatre history. This point is underlined when one cast member, playing Herskovitz, notes that this production is playing the theatre that provided a home for Richard Foreman; the latter is quoted as saying that Camino Real, seen when he was a teenager, changed his life. A lineage is being drawn, taking us from the National (now the Nederlander) Theatre in 1953 to St. Mark's Church today. There's something especially touching about seeing the young cast speak the words of theatre giants from half a century ago. I must add that the performers -- McKenna Kerrigan, John Kurzynowski, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Steven Rattazzi -- impress with their dedication and skill.
The set, by Laura Jellinek, features hot pink walls decorated with script pages, resume photos, letters, and other ephemera; a set of props is hung from a maypole-type structure in the center of the room, and a tiny proscenium stage is used for a few scenes. (Alas, it's so small it tends to cut off the actors' heads.) It's a bizarre design, but it's also imaginative, and I suspect it's exactly what the director wanted. Lenore Doxsee's lighting is mostly intent on reshaping the space as needed, a task it performs reasonably well. Carol Bailey's costumes dress the cast in contemporary wear, adding period pieces as needed. (When an actor is speaking Williams' words, he or she grabs a cigarette holder and martini glass; when channeling Kazan, a fisherman's cap is applied.) I can't quite figure out the sound design credits -- Kate Marvin is the "sound demon" and Jim "Sneaky" Breitmeier is the "big sound guy" -- but what we get is a soundscape of French cabaret, jazz, spoken words, etc.
The Really Big Once is little more than a gloss on a somewhat obscure text, but it has its fascinations. It doesn't probe the full dimension of the Williams-Kazan relationship -- for example, their tussle over the third act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof -- but, in its eccentric way, it does explicate the messy, confusing, and often doomed process of artistic creation. If you're interested in the careers of these men, it's worth a look. -- David Barbour