Off Directing (Part Two)

Staging Makes War on Scripts, but What's the Battle About?

That directing has, for a time, replaced writing or acting as the primary force in theater is only an understandable phase in stage history. Soon it will undoubtedly have run its course, whatever the Harrington case's outcome. While the phase lasts, we can relish its virtues and groan over its defects. But that the director should replace the performance as the object of interest is a physical impossibility, since that would make the whole occasion lose its point. The event may be Ingmar Bergman's Ghosts rather than Ibsen's, but one still goes to it to see Ghosts, to see the Dramaten's sublime troupe act out the story of Ghosts. Bergman stays in Sweden; his presence is felt, not seen. The one directorial exception to this rule I can think of was Tadeusz Kantor, who always built himself into his astonishing, dreamlike pieces, and even he, when his company toured his final work after his death, was memorably represented by the empty chair at its center. It wasn't his persona but his vision that gave the work its stature.

The issue is never one of style, always of focus. As the wise old musician in August Wilson's Ma Rainey says, "You plays the piece." Once given the job, all directors have the right to animate an existing script as they see it, but first they must see it. A theater in which the audience finds a director's choices incomprehensible inevitably lacks credibility, especially when they look so much like other directors' choices for quite different works. The international system of deifying directors, far from encouraging them to "play the piece" boldly, has turned them into tiny versions of Handke's Kaspar, all wanting to be a director "like somebody else was once."

The problem pervades even serious and deeply felt work, like Rina Yerushalmi's Mythos, brought to the Lincoln Center Festival by a consortium of Israeli companies, with an ethnically mixed cast including some Israeli Arabs and Jews of Ethiopian origin. That in itself was noble and artistically exciting; Yerushalmi's directorial results, sadly, were not. With gesture, image, and sparse fragments of text, she dragged us through the entire Oresteian myth, from Thyestes' bloody vengeance to post-Clytemnestra madness and despair. It mostly felt secondhand and meandering. Yerushalmi's images only gained force and beauty toward the end, where the material really seemed to interest her; she might have done better to drop her grandly nebulous conception, and stage a bang-up production of Euripides' Orestes, a rarely produced, meaningfully shaped drama by a poet greatly suited to our crumbling time. It hurt to see a gifted director lose her way while trying to supplant the author; it's a hurt I've often felt these past few years.

Mythos's Clytemnestra (Maya Ben Avraham) and Orestes (Yousef Sweid): noble but nebulous
photo: Stephanie Berger
Mythos's Clytemnestra (Maya Ben Avraham) and Orestes (Yousef Sweid): noble but nebulous

Details

Khovanshchina
By Modest Moussorgsky
Kirov Opera
Lincoln Center Festival
(closed)

Mythos
Conceived and directed by Rina Yerushalmi
Lincoln Center Festival
(closed)

Winterreise
Song cycle by Franz Schubert
Mostly Mozart Festival
Lincoln Center

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It can be felt even when the directing is great. Choreographer Trisha Brown's staging of Schubert's song cycle Die Winterreise, just revived for the "Mostly Mozart Festival," is a masterpiece of its kind. Brown's dark, abstract palette of movement catches the essence of each song in this story of a disheartened lover's journey to sorrow and death. The baritone Simon Keenlyside, who conceived the notion of Brown staging what's normally a concert work, not only sings with nuanced beauty and power, but takes with aplomb physical risks that would make many classical singers shriek with terror. Few baritones would start a song with a running leap onto their knees. Brown's achievement here is undeniable. Yet it's also in some way unnecessary: Schubert and his poet, Muller, put so much feeling and detail into these songs that a great singer-pianist duo (Keenlyside's fine accompanist was Pedja Muzijevic) is all the theater they demand. The movement was beautiful, and Jennifer Tipton's lighting gave near total darkness an exquisite glow, but I longed for the concert platform, with the pianist and Keenlyside's expressive face blazingly lit. I don't want work like Brown's to disappear; I just wish it could have the stature of inevitability. Perhaps directing will only be itself again when directors have relearned that they aren't one of the theater's basic elements.

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