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Goodman Theatre’s ‘Camino Real’ will take viewers on an odyssey

Kilroy (Antwayn Hopper) takes grisly scene fountaCalixBieito’s productiTennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” Goodman Theatre.

Kilroy (Antwayn Hopper) takes in the grisly scene at the fountain in Calixto Bieito’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” at the Goodman Theatre.

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◆ In previews, opens March 12 and runs through April 8

◆ Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

◆ Tickets, $25-$79

◆ (312) 443-3800;

Updated: March 8, 2012 9:50PM

In a Goodman Theatre rehearsal room recently, you could catch quite a cross-section of humanity — all figments of the fevered imagination of playwright Tennessee Williams, and all wanderers through his rarely produced play, “Camino Real” (“The Royal Road”).

Among those assembled were Kilroy, a former boxer-turned-drifter; Marguerite Gautier, the fabled but fading courtesan lifted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel, “The Lady of the Camellias”; that legendary (if now aging) lover, Casanova; the Baron de Charlus, a licentious gay man lifted from Proust’s novel, “Remembrance of Things Past”; Lord Byron, the romantic poet and freedom fighter; Esmeralda, the seductive gypsy girl from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”; a fatcat gangster by the name of Gutman; a gypsy in the guise of a cowgirl; and a rather tattered balladeer, “The Dreamer,” who might be Don Quixote.

Overseeing the hallucinatory journeys of these damaged and damaging souls — all played by a slew of veteran Chicago actors and a few well-chosen “guests” — was Calixto Bieito, the Catalonian director with a shaved head, a soft voice and a louder-than-a-bomb reputation for the enormous number of shake-and-shock productions of operas and plays he has staged throughout Europe during the past couple of decades.

It was a production of an opera — Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” — that first caught the fancy of the Goodman’s artistic director, Robert Falls, when he saw it at Berlin’s Komische Opera in 2004. After talking to the Barcelona-based director about possibly staging a play by Eugene O’Neill, the two ultimately settled on Williams’ “Camino Real” instead.

“It’s a play that is not really known in Europe,” said Bieto. “In Spain it was only done in a very old-fashioned way — full of cuts, because it was too strong, too obvious in its homosexual references, and too politically incorrect for what was our very conservative country. Williams was so free and so open in this play — very radical really — and far from the cliched Spanish productions of his most popular works like ‘A Streetcar Named Desire” and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’.”

“Above all, Williams wanted to be a poet, not a realist of the theater,” said the director. “Working on this production sent me back to his poetry and his memoirs, and I discovered that he saw ‘Camino’ as a kind of testament, a summation of all that he was thinking about for the theater. He was a man who was fighting until the end — against himself, against his society, against his country, which he simultaneously loved and hated. And this play is so personal, complex and extremely tender. It has come closer to me than the work of [the early 20th century Spanish playwright-poet] Federico Garcia Lorca, or Ibsen, or many others I’ve directed. It is Williams’ version of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ — brutal, but also very fragile.”

In his foreword to the play, Williams wrote: “My desire was to give audiences my own sense of something wild and unrestricted that ran like water in the mountains, or clouds changing shape in a gale, or continuing dissolving and transforming images of a dream. This sort of freedom is not chaos nor anarchy. On the contrary, it is the result of painstaking design . . . ” And in his prologue the playwright describes the plaza where he sees the play unspool this way: “It belongs to a tropical seaport that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Vera Cruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans.”

Bieito has collaborated with German set designer Rebecca Ringst to create what he described as a landscape that “could be an international airport, or the great roadways of big modern cities, especially in the U.S. where the lights are so strong at night. But it also could be a dream state — a complete abstraction of the lights in the mind. It is partly a remembrance from my childhood, too. I grew up in the little town of Miranda de Ebro in northern Spain, where we had great festivals with lights. It’s a mix of all of this for a play about characters who are lost in the landscape. They can’t really go anywhere, they have no hope, yet they dream of the future. And they need love in order to live.”

Born in 1963, while dictator Francisco Franco was still in power, Bieito was educated by the Jesuits for 15 years.

“It was a very strong Catholic education,” he recalled. “I studied music and sang in the church choir. But it also was a very open education. On Friday evenings there were screenings of movies at school for the parents, and I would sneak in. That’s where I first saw the films of [Spanish surrealist] Luis Bunuel.”

At 15, by which time Franco was dead and democracy was blooming, Bieito and his family moved to Barcelona. He studied philology (literature and linguistics) and art history at the University of Barcelona, but found the place “too posh” and moved on to the School of Dramatic Arts in Tarragona. He went on to study with many of the masters of late 20th century theater, from Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook to Giorgio Strehler and Judy Dench.

“I am a huge cocktail of influences,” confessed Bieito, the father of two sons. “It’s everything from baroque Easter celebrations, to the paintings of Velasquez and Goya, to Bunuel. My mother always wanted me to be a musician, like my brother, and I studied piano. I need music to live.”

Bieito made three trips to Chicago in order to cast “Camino Real,” and he credits the Goodman’s casting director, Adam Belcuore, for doing “a fantastic job” of assisting him in the process.”

“I found extremely sensitive actors here,” he said. “I have worked in theaters in all over Europe, and each has traditions of their own, so I can’t say which is ‘the best.’ But we have put together a very, very good company here.”

Booked through 2017, Bieito will move on to direct “The Cherry Orchard” in Munich and then head to Britain’s Brimingham Repertory this summer for “Forests,” which will feature a cast of English and Catalan actors in an original work inspired by Shakespeare’s references to forests. It will be yet another Dante-esque journey “through life, paradise, hell, truth and lies.”

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