The Dark Secrets of the Belgian Avant-Garde

Or, How Director Ivo van Hove Rehearses Molière's The Misanthrope

A week later, although these explorations have been methodical, progress has been slow. Ryan appears a little nervous about this, but has no doubts. "Ivo is a true actors' director," he says. "It's not the angle I expected. Nothing comes that isn't from a logical, organic impulse." Joan Macintosh, who plays Alceste's rival Acaste, agrees: "He has gotten to the heart of what Molière wrote." The company is now working on the NYTW main stage, which is buried under garbage: food, papers, and bottles are strewn everywhere. But Van Hove assures me that there is no food fight. So why are the video screens splattered with egg? "There is some food which we enjoy ourselves with," he says, grinning boyishly. But he's quick to emphasize that it comes from the text, not criminal mischief. "It's about consumption, a society caught in the illusion that they can consume each other. Food is an element in that." The actors still don't know how all the set dressing will be used.

X-ray visions? Serralles, Camp, and Van Hove at work at New York Theatre Workshop.
Jan Versweyveld
X-ray visions? Serralles, Camp, and Van Hove at work at New York Theatre Workshop.

Undaunted, Van Hove plows ahead with a late scene they haven't touched yet: Alceste and Oronte finally demand that Céliméne (Jeanine Serralles), their love interest, choose between them. The director begins by slowly, tentatively dispersing the performers. Some sit in dressing rooms visible from the auditorium (and on camera); others are downstage. As accusations fly, the actors, like their characters, have to bridge these unwieldy distances and sort out their relationships. As they delve into the scene, it becomes clear that this spatial choice—which at first looks weirdly de-centered and self-consciously arty—actually serves the text. The chaotic configuration underscores the romantic confusion and opens the way for the cast's discoveries: Who's in? Who's out? Who's speaking and watching? Who's onstage? Who's not acting? The video complicates the composition further, and it's not easy to see a final shape. But, as Camp says a few minutes later, reflecting on the day's work: "Ivo has an amazing ability to find given circumstances I can't ignore, using all the elements. And with him, you can always go further." That's a true actor's endorsement of a director's process. Van Hove, the secret naturalist, would be pleased.

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