Director Arturo Corso is sitting on a step at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, watching a dress rehearsal of Dario Fo's satirical romp, "Elisabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman" (opening Friday). He studies the actors, nods, smiles, whispers to his assistant, laughs at the appropriate intervals. It's all very normal, very typical--that is, except for the fact that Corso doesn't speak or understand a word of English.
"First of all, I know the (Italian) text by heart," Corso, 50, explained via his girlfriend, translator Suzannah Marion. "But also, in epic theater, the single word is not important. What you are playing is the intention , not the word. And it is not hard to make actors understand intention. When we were casting this play, I auditioned 300 actors--10 at a time. I gave them the text, talked to them about (emotional) indications and listened to what they knew how to do."
If the director makes it sound simple, he makes it look that way, too. At one point during the run-through, Corso, displeased with some physical business, abruptly stops the action and takes to the stage, gesturing and talking, with Marion translating near-simultaneously. ("He says it has to be more to the left.") He also rarely looks his actors in the eye--except for Barbara Sohmers, with whom he converses in French. Sometimes, impatiently, he doesn't wait for the translation and pantomimes his wishes directly to the actors. They nod. Message received.
Clearly, it helps to have done this before. The six-character "Elisabeth" (which Corso describes as "a story of power, about the society we're living in and the relationship between the classes") is merely the latest in a long line of foreign-language productions he's undertaken, including work in Canada, Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia.
He's also staged "Elisabeth" in Finland, where "the reality is different than the American reality. The society is more socialistic; capitalism has not exploded there. Because of that, the intentions change," he noted. "They have their own culture, their own problems. And yet there is the universality of Dario Fo. Fo is one of the few playwrights who doesn't talk about personal problems, but collective problems. The themes are always the same--government, power--but the way you do them is different. Finnish people occupy a space differently; their body language is different. You cannot make them act like Italians. Each person moves and talks according to which society they live in."
The American profile?
"All over the world I've found American actors are very good: They're prepared, precise--and they work on their technique. In Europe, actors who are 45 do not go to workshops. But the biggest difference is that everyone here tries to specialize in intimate theater. That kind of acting is good for television and movies--but then in theater, they use the same techniques, same rhythms, same ways to move, same beats. It's right for cinema, but not for epic theater."
He doesn't blame the actors. "Theater doesn't get support from the state, so actors have to worry who's going to give them money. They don't consider theater because it doesn't give them any security."
Corso's sympathy with the actor's plight is not unusual, given the fact that for many years he was one--a successful TV actor to boot. "Then I (came to) understand how fake that image was: all to sell products." He walked away from television, began directing small stand-up and cabaret acts. Then one night at dinner, his friend Dario Fo suggested he stage one of his plays. Corso's response was shock. "I couldn't sleep for two days. It was such a big responsibility."
Twenty-four years and 18 productions later, the Milan-based director is much more relaxed: "It's easier to direct Fo, to find the right intentions, because we are close. That we are friends is not a problem. And I don't worry if I am sometimes wrong. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. But I do my work honestly. I respect the fundamentals. My education as an actor is not to fool people. Oh, you can take the telephone book and invent tricks--and the public will have fun. But you gave them the telephone book."
Corso's sources are a bit loftier. With a soft spot for the commedia genre (born in Venice, "the birthplace of commedia dell'arte," he trained with Jacques Lecoq and currently teaches stand-up comedy), the director moves comfortably from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Pirandello and Goldoni. "I worry with every play and playwright," he said earnestly. "Each time I start preparing at least two months before. I want to know why the play is (set) at that moment, in that area, why he wrote that sentence and not another."
Corso took a drag on his cigarette and grinned. "It's a big job when you take it seriously."