Free theater is one of the many perks of a being a Columbia student.  Camino Real is an opportunity to see the work of young professionals that should not be missed.  The final two performances are today at 2pm and 8pm at the Riverside Theater on Claremont and 120th St. 

As Janis Joplin puts it:“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”  And without a doubt there’s a bit of “Me and Bobby McGee” in Tennessee William’s Camino Real, now being performed at the Riverside Theater Columbia.  But instead of wailing out the blues of a broken heart, Williams casts the Camino Real’s wayward denizens in a shroud of obscurity.  Tony Speciale’s direction, however, gives Williams’ elliptical script an innovative, new spirit.   

The performance capitalizes on the surreal setting of the original script – a ghost town somewhere south of the border, haunted by the bygone dreams and achievements of its residents. Even though the Camino fosters its inhabitants illicit cravings, a desire to escape binds them all.  The stage, imaginatively designed by Russell M. Schram, divides between the Siete Mares, a seedy resort, and the Ritz Men Only, a flophouse that seems more appropriate for Amsterdam’s Red Light district than the work of a Southern Gothic.

Nonetheless, the lurid neons of the Ritz Men Only’s tiki lights work perfectly with Jessica Pabst’s effectively graphic costumes.  The chorus, a band of whores, beggars, street performers and gypsies, are decked out in an assortment of ripped lingerie, twisted fishnets and soiled sweat pants and wife-beaters. Despite their seemingly polished presentations, the guests at the Siete Mares also ooze in their own greasy squalor.  The combination of the two underscores the wanton desires and the inevitable disappointment latent in nearly all lines of the Camino’s desperadoes.   

Painfully exhausted and interminably thirsty, these characters inhabit a fantastic world very much removed from reality.  The Camino initially bewilders not just the audience, but even Kilroy (Joe Curnutte), a clean-cut American kid and former lightweight champ, who finds himself on the destitute strip.    Unable to resist its intrigue, however, Kilroy soon is immersed in the language and life of the Camino.  At times Curnutte’s Texan twang and starry-eyed awe comes off too smoothly and undercuts the authenticity of Kilroy’s confusion.

If Curnutte’s performance at times lags, the performance of the chorus invariably compensates for it. Speciale’s choreography and Christian Frederickson sound design are equally excellent and are showcased in their collective chorus. The orchestration builds to startling power in the third act as Esmeralda (Stephanie Wright Thompson), a gypsy Casanova and born-again virgin, celebrates her newfound chastity. An off-hand swish of the hips and smack of the lips seamlessly develops into an outstanding version of Madonna’s classic, “Like a Virgin.” Both the audience and Kilroy are mesmerized.

In the ensuing relationship, Curnutte and Thompson bring Williams’ characteristic sting to their lines.  But both Curnutte and Thompson are more at ease belting Madonna’s poppy lyrics than they are at channeling the heartache and bitterness latent in Williams’ script.   To compensate for the flagging sincerity of their interaction, Speciale relies on well-timed, albeit facile, comic relief and sexual innuendo.

If Camino Real initially lacks the direct emotional conflict that drives his other works, Speciale’s brilliantly executed creative vision draws out the nuance in Williams’ drama.  As the play progresses, an impressive poignancy emerges and the audience is torn between hoping for and mourning for the Camino’s collection of broken heroes. Exploring the gray area between living in the past and dreaming of the future, Camino Real offers an entertaining and eventually optimistic look at being young and feeling blue.  If you’re busted and broke, this is the play for you – it’s free with your CUID!