Off Directing (Part I)

Cost-Cutting Tip for Theaters: Delete the Art That's Lost Its Meaning

There will be variations in the ugliness, according to the degree of distastefulness or pointless jocosity the director can scheme up and the producing organization tolerate. Robert Wilson thought it amusing to populate Strindberg's Dream Play with large papier-mâché cows, though none are mentioned in the text; Mark Wing-Davey thinks it amusing for the French commanders in Henry V to pose as a swim team whose bathrobes spell out "Vive la guerre!" But then, Wing-Davey is easily amused; he also thinks it cute for Shakespeare's characters to quote Mary Poppins and Fiddler on the Roof, producing jokes that are neither topical (the works in question being more antique to the young than Shakespeare is) nor relevant. (Didn't the last two world wars produce enough quotable songs?) This kind of cutesy-poo makes a production memorable, where the usual deconstructive reductiveness only makes it trite. But what it does more than anything else is reduce the theater to a matter of cocktail-party chitchat ("You remember, that was the one where the jury in the trial scene all wore Santa Claus costumes"), effectively removing it from the world of communication, where a work is played for the purpose of reaching its audience.

Liev Schreiber in Henry V: Wing-Davey makes war on text.
photo: Michal Daniel
Liev Schreiber in Henry V: Wing-Davey makes war on text.


Henry V
By William Shakespeare
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park

Semyon Kotko
By Sergei Prokofiev
Kirov Opera/Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center (closed)

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
By Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Kirov Opera (closed)

Postmodernism of course believes that there is no point in anyone reaching anybody; communication is always arbitrary and always misunderstood. So why not dramatize the fact? To which the reasonable answer is: Because it isn't interesting. The fact is known to everybody; we all struggle with it daily. When we leave our daily lives and become an audience, we want something else. We want at least to be reminded that the world is a wide and varied place, in which there are many possible ways for communication to fail. We may want to empathize with the people whose story is being acted out onstage, or to see them in a larger context that analyzes and critiques their motives—socioeconomically, politically, psychologically, what have you. What we don't want is to have it represented to us that everything is always the same, except when it is insanely peculiar, like the exactly identical red Carnival costumes, modeled on inquisitors' robes, that made the townspeople of Semyon Kotko look exactly like a convention of Communist Kleagles. Unhelpful enough with a known quantity like Henry V, the approach is fatal to curios like the two rarely seen items the Kirov brought over. But I'm in no position to speak of these works, since their directors have deprived me of the opportunity of seeing them while I heard them. And I'm out of space, so will have more to say on this topic next week.

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