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THEATER : Enough to Drive You Crazy : Phyllida Lloyd adjusts to staging the Freudian comedy 'Hysteria' in L.A. (not many female directors around here--but there sure are lots of people in therapy).

July 23, 1995|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Phyllida Lloyd didn't expect to be thought of as such an anomaly. Yet the London-based stage director, who's here on her first assignment at a major American theater, feels as though she has been zapped "back to the future."

It has to do with her gender. "I've been amazed here how many [people] have said to me 'What's going on, who did you pay to get [to direct] here?' " says the quiet, affable Lloyd, seated outside the Mark Taper Forum during a rehearsal break. "That surprised me, which must mean that women are more integrated in England than they are here."

Such matters, it seems, are always relative. "My girlfriends who are in the theater [and I] talk a lot about how to get more women in, to give young women a leg up," Lloyd continues. "But when I come here, it's thrown into relief. It made me realize that actually things aren't quite as bad over there."

Yes, quite.

Lloyd is here to stage the American premiere of English playwright Terry Johnson's "Hysteria," opening Thursday at the Taper. She also directed the play in its 1993 premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

At the Taper, she is a rare female figure. Since the Taper's 1991-92 season, only one woman per year has directed on the main stage. Lloyd is this season's only female director, and there won't be any women directing works in the coming season. While the Taper is not unusual in this regard among American theaters, it differs markedly from analogous theaters in England. Consequently, more British women are considered to be in the top ranks of directors there than here.

"We certainly have a number of women [directors]," says Lloyd. "If you had to name the top five directors in England, say, two of them would definitely be women. I think nobody would quarrel with that."

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Lloyd herself might well turn up on such a list. Along with Katie Mitchell, whose Royal Shakespeare Co. adaptation of the "Henry VI" trilogy was seen at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in 1994, Lloyd is currently considered among the most noted English directors. Her productions of theater and opera have been seen not only at the Royal Court, but also at the RSC, Covent Garden and other major venues.

Yet aside from a small 1987 production at Rutgers University, Lloyd hasn't worked in the United States before. "Hysteria" may well be an apt vehicle for her major U.S. debut, especially since the work's stylistic complexity makes it just the kind of text that suits Lloyd's particular talents.

Known for her ability to bring an overarching conceptualization to works (such as Shakespeare's "Pericles") that have their own internal changes in style, Lloyd may be just what the doctor ordered for Johnson's play.

"A collision of the most unlikely ingredients [including] farce and child abuse, which butt up against each other," as Lloyd describes it, the four-character comedy centers on an aging Sigmund Freud and a strange young woman who challenges him.

Critical response to Johnson's play was mixed in London, but Lloyd's work was generally considered solid. London Sunday Times' critic John Peter wrote: "Phyllida Lloyd's direction has the precision and free-wheeling imagination of a magician-philosopher."

Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson did not see the Royal Court production of "Hysteria," although he had admired Lloyd's direction of "Pericles."

" 'Pericles' is a hard play and she took some bold chances," he says. "It's a piece that deals in fantasy and fairy tale and also a quest. It was her storytelling and theatricality that I thought would serve 'Hysteria' well."

Davidson also chose Lloyd for "Hysteria" because he wanted to allow the director and Johnson to be able to continue their collaboration. "If a director and a writer have made a connection, then I believe [enabling] them to continue the relationship is the right thing to do," he says.

Now, Lloyd feels she must rethink her approach to "Hysteria" for a different set of sensibilities. "The really important thing is the different audience," says Lloyd. "What will this mean to them?

"Maybe a Los Angeles audience is more versed in Freud and analysis," says Lloyd. "In London, it's quite a rarefied activity to be on an analyst's couch. Here, you meet a lot of people who've done it."

For Lloyd, having done the show before may be an advantage. "I had a trial run, which really helped," says Lloyd. "It's the first time I've ever done anything twice. And I've decided that this is how prepared one needs to be."

L loyd, 38, was born in rural Bristol, into "a very un-show bizzy family," as she puts it. "I'm a freak of nature around my parts."

She attended the all-girls boarding school Great Malvern. "It was a school that was dedicated to training women to be able to [conduct] charity on behalf of their husbands," says Lloyd. "But we learned to dance and sing and speak in public."

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