Street of Dreams

Houston theater is, for the most part, conservative. Of course we get the strange imports from New York City and Los Angeles, but our homegrown theater -- smart and lovely though it may be -- is pretty tame. We might have the once-in-a-while nude scene, or a play about last year's social/political outrage or maybe even a Hamlet set in Pasadena. But that's about as wild as we get here.

At least, that was true until Infernal Bridegroom came along. This ragtag bunch of Houston thespians has all the gleeful, boneheaded stubbornness of youth, which they use to conjure up unusual and often wonderfully risky (at least by Houston standards) moments in theater. And best of all, they have the intelligence to pull it off. The season opener for IBP (as they call themselves) is a play that any rational theater company in only its third year wouldn't dare try. But Jason Nodler, the company's artistic director, is obviously not afraid of much. Why else would he attempt a play as strange and difficult and prone to failure as Tennessee Williams's Camino Real?

Set in a surreal seaport town somewhere south of the border, the play concerns a motley group of folks who are trapped by their own fears. The play's tone is ever shifting, moving from passionate, woe-filled longing to biting irony. With over 40 characters, Camino Real is loose-jointed and sprawling, and wants to be at once deeply intellectual and wildly theatrical. At many wickedly funny moments it succeeds in being both, due in no small part to the wit of Nodler and his company.

All the play's action takes place outdoors, on the street, during one long and lonely night. As the play opens, a bedraggled Don Quixote stumbles by accident upon the Camino Real (which, in Spanish, means the grand or royal road). Weary with loneliness and travel, he curls up in a corner to sleep, and when he sleeps he dreams, and thus the play unfolds -- it's a sort of ontological dreamscape in which grand ideas such as love, freedom and truth are examined by a series of archetypal characters. This unlikely hodgepodge of literary figures, including the poet Byron, the lover Casanova and the World War II myth-hero Kilroy, all struggle to make meaning in a life that is punctuated by ridiculous cruelties.

The play is ambitious, to say the least. And all this ambition is difficult to contain in the claustrophobic boxiness of a small theater. Thus Nodler's most wonderfully inspired directorial decision was to rent a shadowy plaza in the dilapidated and worn-out Westbury Square for his production. Here an enormous live oak canopies the production, audience and all. The actors enter from abandoned stores and run down cobblestone alleyways; they lean from second-story windows; they deliver lines from hidden and candlelit rooms. The moon and the stars above, combined with the tender fall nights, make this production feel like some strange, modern-day derivative of commedia dell'arte, which was often performed outdoors, out of traveling wagons. And right in the center of the Westbury Square plaza sits a bright and beautifully painted wagon replete with a fortune-telling gypsy, a pratfalling idiot/tumbler and a goodhearted whore, all of them part of Tennessee Williams's strange vision in this play.

Some of Williams's strongest writing in Camino Real is found in the scenes around this wagon. The scenes are farcical and silly, and the IBP cast works them for all they're worth. Sarah Mitchell's Esmeralda is wickedly smart, beautifully sexy and very funny. She's a whore who can talk about the dialectics of the class struggle and demand tenderness from her man in the same conversation. Tamarie Cooper, whose shtick- filled performance as a Gypsy shyster lady comes complete with New York accent, brown cigarettes and frowzy slippers, is also very amusing. Ditto for her sidekick, euphemistically named Nursie, played by Greg Stanley, who dresses in drag and stomps about the patio in white patent-leather platformed mules, screeching his lines like anyone's worst nightmare of a nurse.

All of Camino Real's obviously comedic scenes are handled with delightful and infectious whimsy. Gutman, a character who acts as the play's black-hearted ringmaster, announcing its progress and the other characters' weaknesses, is played by Charlie Scott with silly intelligence. George Parker, who plays Kilroy, the dull-witted, big-hearted American everyman, does so with energetic, dog-happy enthusiasm. He's one of the highlights of the show. When Kilroy meets up with more serious matters -- such as when he encounters the Baron, an ill-fated masochist looking for someone with "chains" (played with delicious camp by Jim Parsons) -- his confusion and good intentions constitute some of the play's few successful noncomedic moments.

Generally speaking, in both the play as written and the production as handled by IBP, the serious scenes with the big ideas are weak. I can't fathom how any actor could bring any truth to such peculiar lines as, "What are we sure of? Not even our existence, dear comforting friend! And whom can we ask the questions that torment us?" or Lord Byron's description of Percy Bysshe Shelley's funeral pyre: "And there was the brain of Shelley, indistinguishable from a cooking stew! -- boiling, bubbling, hissing! -- in the blackening cracked pot of his skull!" Certainly, standing with fists dramatically clenched and wide-open eyes staring off into space -- an expression I've never once seen on anyone's face in real life, but which seemed to be the favorite serious expression of the night -- isn't enough to conjure the magic needed to bring such lines to life.

But this production is much too good to linger on the evening's less fortunate moments. And I'm more than willing to blame the weak spots on Williams himself. After all, Williams described some of the first audiences to see Camino Real as "stamping out [of the theater] with little regard for those they had to crawl over, almost as if the building had caught fire." At the end of IBP's production, in contrast, the audience stood up and cheered.

Camino Real plays through November 2 at Westbury Square, corner of West Bellfort and Burdine, 802-0250.