What does a director do? Sometimes too much. Sometimes too little. And sometimes just enough.
What constitutes "too much" will vary with the show. There's general agreement in the modern theater that the director's job in staging a brand-new play is to keep his hands pretty much to himself. The task is to convey the playwright's vision, without offering a competing vision of his own. Audiences can only process so much new information at a time.
What about old plays? One school of thought would say that here, too, the playwright's word--i.e., the text--is law. As with a symphony conductor, the director's task is to bring the "score" to life, bringing out the values that are there and adding none that aren't.
Others see no problem in allowing the director to fiddle with the text to relocate the play in time, to add provocative visuals, to do whatever necessary to bring it to life. Why not do "Hamlet" on roller skates--if it brings us closer, in some way, to "Hamlet"?
If I had to join one party or the other, it would be the conservatives. How can actors touch the living stuff under the words of a play except through the words? And how much time can go to the words when the director and his designer are out chasing this or that new "concept"?
Thomas Bradac's recent staging of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" for the Grove Shakespeare Festival, for example, was perfectly conventional. It didn't need a "concept" to point out the parallels between a gossipy small town in Elizabethan England and a similar town today--the acting made the point.
There is room, though, in the theater for the concept director, if he or she can make the concept work. Ariane Mnouchkine, for example, convinced us that "Richard II" was written about a world whose codes resembled that of the samurai warrior. In hopes of similar revelations, one is willing to see "Hamlet" tried on roller skates.
But the cast had better be good skaters. And the director had better be ready for comparisons between his images and Shakespeare's. Directors who set out to challenge the classics should be aware that they are really the ones on trial.
We've had three examples of "director's theater" this summer. There was Stein Winge's staging of De Ghelderode's "Barabbas" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. There was Peter Sellars' production of Sophocles' "Ajax" at the La Jolla Playhouse. And, also at La Jolla, there was Robert Woodruff's staging of Odon Von Horvath's "Figaro Gets a Divorce."
Winge's "Barabbas" was the clumsiest, overlaying a text-heavy play with a net of images that tried to be striking, perverse, even sacrilegious--to shock us into thought. From where I was sitting, the effect usually took one's mind elsewhere than the play. Sometimes it actually worked against the play.
By wrapping Christ's apostles in gauze, for instance, Winge presumably meant to imply that they were trapped in fear, trying to pass as invisible men. But the effect was exactly the opposite: You thought of mummies running around loose in the streets--which would surely not have passed without notice in tense Jerusalem.
The effect was also unintentionally comic, suggesting T. S. Eliot's rueful description of the Furies in the original production of "The Family Reunion"--the more ethereal the director tried to make them look, the sillier they looked. Theatrical images don't exist merely in the mind's eye, and Winge's "Barabbas" suffered from some poorly chosen ones, as well as from poor casting. To make Barabbas a hip guy in the Robin Williams mode nullified De Ghelderode's image of him as a brute who only gradually comes to see his true situation.
Poor casting wasn't a problem with Sellars' "Ajax." Howie Seago was magnificent in the leading role--a dumb giant struggling to meet his fate like a man, not so different from Barabbas.
Sellars' visual metaphors were as extreme as Winge's, and in a couple of cases as show-offy. In general, though, he had thought his images out, and they paid off. Seago, for instance, was first seen in a transparent chamber, halfway up to his knees in blood. We got the image of a brute in a trap. We also got the image of a glass booth, as when a hated war criminal must testify at an investigation.
By setting the Trojan War on the doorstep (back door) of the Pentagon, Sellars was implying that there were parallels between Homeric mythology and Cold War mythology. Whether or not one accepted the parallels, the parallels could be argued and thought about. This concept production had a concept, and it rang true enough of the time to keep the viewer on track.
Woodruff's "Figaro" was the best of the lot. This never once ran off the track. Horvath's play takes off from "The Marriage of Figaro," with Count Almaviva's circle becoming refugees after a revolution--here seen as taking place in Central America.