The stately institutions around Lincoln Center's plaza are monuments to 19th-century forms. Ballet. Opera. Boulevard plays. That's worth remembering as we build our expectations for this year's Lincoln Center Festival, the annual three-week presenting series starting July 7. Summertime is an extension of Lincoln Center's year-round classical ethos, and when it comes to theater, that generally means no wild experiments. Each year, on the whole, festival artistic director Nigel Redden chooses current works from well-established, relatively traditional theater-makers. In seasons past, we've encountered Ta'ziyeh theater from Iran, Kabuki theater from Japan's legendary Heisei Nakamura-za, and German operas with sets so huge that they required off-site locations (last summer's Die Soldaten).
The 2009 festival emphasizes new European theater, providing a rare chance for New York audiences to see classically orientated productions on a large scale and with interpretive ambition. Don't expect Europe's cutting edge from these selections (there are a few exceptions)—but there'll be plenty of great artistry to savor.
This year's theater lineup includes familiar faces such as Ariane Mnouchkine and her venerable collective Théâtre du Soleil (founded in 1964). You might recall their moving, moralistic 2005 presentation of the epic Le Dernier caravansérail, depicting worldwide migration and human trafficking. This time, they unveil Les Éphémères (July 7–19), a "mosaic of ordinary lives" created "from the actors' own memories and improvisations." It will make an interesting change to see this socially committed company apply their considerable energies to humanist subjects.
Expect another sweeping, elegiac vision of humanity from Lev Dodin—perhaps Russia's best-known living stage director, who combines rigorous Russian naturalism with physical and spatial inventiveness. This time, Dodin arrives from St. Petersburg with his Maly Drama Theatre adaptation of Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate (July 21–26), about a family's struggle on the Eastern Front in the 1940s. (It's disappointing that the festival has never brought Dodin's world-famous version of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, something Redden should consider while it's still in the Maly's repertory.) Another Russian production in the festival—Pushkin's bona fide classic Boris Godunov (July 22–26)—is actually staged by a Brit, Declan Donnellan, who has been working frequently in Russia, presumably lured by the quality of actors.
Most exciting is the arrival of Polish master director Krystian Lupa. Lupa's productions are not easy to watch. They are often lengthy adaptations of novels and other non-dramatic material, and his mise-en-scène plays with space, time, and improvisation: It can be excruciatingly slow. But once your eyes and ears adjust, he offers a focus and intensity of expression that can be electrifying. Lupa is a major artist in Europe, and his Polish productions have never appeared in New York. Kalkwerk (July 14–18), a 1992 production from Lupa's classical period, features some sublime central performances; you can recognize the director's handwriting, but it may make a questionable choice for Lupa's debut American tour. Based on a Thomas Bernhard novel about a scientist's mental state, the piece issues a double challenge to first-timers: a difficult modernist novel and an unassimilated new stage aesthetic. (Lincoln Center would have done better to present one of Lupa's two recent meditations on American subjects—Factory 2, based on Andy Warhol's films, and Persona, dealing with Marilyn Monroe.)
One other unmissable U.S. premiere is Béla Pintér and Company from Budapest. Pinter is a comic genius: a former folk dancer who creates wildly ironic, charmingly grotesque fables reflecting on folk life, ethnicity, and nationalism—with original music and, yes, Hungarian folk dancing. Unfortunately, LCF will only present Peasant Opera (July 21–26), arguably Pinter's blandest show—but absolutely worth seeing. LCF rounds out its program with two solid but far more conventional repertory ensembles: Budapest's Katona József Theatre will do Chekhov's Ivanov (July 7–11), and Milan's historic Piccolo Teatro will do a trilogy of Goldoni comedies (July 22–26). Of course, many far more radical European artists have yet to be exposed in New York, where their influential work would surely make waves: Christoph Schlingensief and René Pollesch come to mind, both in the creative and political vanguard. But that's for another day: This month, Lincoln Center Festival 2009 offers some terrific U.S. premieres—and, as with every premiere, let's hope it's just the first of many invigorating introductions.