Camino Real

When Tennessee Williams' three-hour epic—a mix of edgy surrealism and poetic reverie—premiered in 1953, it largely perplexed audiences accustomed to the playwright's more conventional works, but it has subsequently become more widely appreciated. The challenges faced by director Jessica Kubzansky and a 20-member ensemble (mostly faculty, alumni, and students of CalArts) generally pay off in a viscerally stunning and emotionally resonant portrait of longing, suffering, and redemption. Though the rigorous demands of this wildly adventurous vehicle exceed the company's grasp at times, it's a dazzling production, awash with lyrical flourishes that feel like quintessential Williams.

Framed as a dream by Cervantes' deranged knight character, Don Quixote (Lenny Von Dohlen), the script eschews linear plotting in favor of 16 episodes, referred to by the audacious narrator Gutman (Brian Tichnell) as "blocks." Yet the personal journey of former champion boxer Kilroy (Matthew Goodrich) provides a degree of unity to the play's central themes—which explore spiritual disillusionment, the search for salvation through true love, and the repressive forces of a corrupt society. The setting is an unspecified Hispanic community that's a sort of purgatory for trapped souls, run as a terrifying police state. Sharing the harrowing attempts of pure-hearted Kilroy to escape from this virtual prison are historical and literary characters dealing with their individual frustrations. Among them are the Italian libertine Casanova (Tim Cummings), the Romantic poet Lord Byron (Michael Aurelio), and the doomed Dumas heroine Camille (Marissa Chibas). Lowlife characters, such as prostitutes, thieves, and brutal law enforcers, add to the melee.

For the most part, the game actors capture the requisite humor, poignancy, and terror of this unnerving fantasia. The charismatic Goodrich is particularly on-target. His masterful combination of physical dexterity, intelligence, vulnerability, and utmost sincerity give this bizarre piece the recognizable human anchor that it needs. Tichnell is energetic as the malevolent hotel owner, but camping up this role—shades of Joel Grey in "Cabaret"—seems a misstep. The versatile Von Dohlen is superb as Don Quixote, an effete Baron, and the aristocratic Lord Mulligan. Cristina Frias excels as a duplicitous gypsy and the self-important dowager Lady Mulligan.

The wondrous designs are highlighted by Dorothy Hoover's sprawling set, Silvanne E.B. Park's costumes, Ellie Rabinowitz's lighting, and Patrick Janssen's sound. Kwan Fai Lam provides atmospheric original music

Presented by CalArts at and in association with the Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Feb. 12–Mar. 13. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (626) 683-6883.