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THEATER

Staying True to Form

With works such as Marivaux's 'Changes of Heart,' director Stephen Wadsworth makes forbidding period pieces invitingly relevant. It's all a matter of style.

July 21, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

For many people, the Enlightenment looms as a distant and hazy moment in the development of Western culture, the stuff of a forgotten history lesson at best. But to opera and theater director Stephen Wadsworth, it's a period whose uncertainties mirror our own.

After the intellectual advances of the 17th century, the Age of Reason was a time when philosophy was being reshaped along rationalist lines, promoting new social, political and scientific ideals.

"Basically, the 18th century is the century that delivered modern democracy onto the doorstep of this century," says the vivacious director, his animated gestures conveying a passion for the topic, during a recent rehearsal break.

"It's the early Enlightenment, which is about imminent change," Wadsworth says. "It's about the attempt to reorder, and it was a tremendous period of gathering knowledge."

It was also a fertile epoch for arts and letters.

"There's something about the art of this period, in the first half of the century, when these ideas were just growing," says the director, who is known for his staging, adaptation and translation of works by French and Italian artists of the early 18th century. "Suddenly lots of people were sharing these ideas, and the century became a runaway train."

The Santa Fe, N.M.-based Wadsworth, 43, whose staging of Handel's "Xerxes" was seen at L.A. Music Center Opera in 1994, is directing his own adaptation of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's 1723 comedy "Changes of Heart," opening Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum. The play's commedia dell'arte characters and others tell the story of a prince who is in love with a country lass who is, in turn, smitten with the town clown.

If the style seems foreign, the play's concerns are not.

"Marivaux was fascinated by the phenomenon of change," Wadsworth says. "He chose to write about love and intrigues of the heart, but what [his plays] are really about is big shifts, nowhere more screamingly so than in this play.

"Every single heart has a humongous shift which is so painful and so real," he continues. "And we've all been there."

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As if the task of translation and adaptation weren't enough, directors who tackle playwrights such as Marivaux must also navigate the gap between the play's culture and that of the present. And that's no mean feat--particularly given that most contemporary audiences are unschooled in the whys and wherefores of 18th century mores.

"For a lot of people, style and period convention are a barrier to the content of the play, whatever it is," Wadsworth says. "When you play style, whatever the style is, there has to be a fundamental understanding that style and content are the same thing."

Wadsworth is, in fact, one of only a very few American directors known for their success with period style.

"We think of period as being phony, but that's what bad period acting and directing is," says Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where Wadsworth has directed a play each year since 1992. "He brings to life the time.

"It's a perfect balance between style that has an exquisite profile to it, so that you get the clothes and manners of the time and American Method-style acting," she says. "He finds extraordinary tragedy in comedy, and extraordinary comedy in tragedy. You really care about these [characters]: They're exquisite vessels of feeling."

The key, apparently, is working with, rather than against, the text.

"You have to decode it but not deconstruct it," Wadsworth says. "There're too many postmodern takes on classic plays. Not that they're not valid or interesting--or that the tension between our sensibility and the original can't be productive for an audience. But usually they are reductive in some way."

The alternative approach may be more difficult, but there's a payoff.

"What I deeply need to do is to rediscover a style for these plays," Wadsworth says. "What I've worked on is trying to understand the language of gesture, verbal language, rhythm, the way bodies are disposed in relation to one another onstage, the pictures, the emotional style--all the things which make up a style."

Style is a matter of uncovering what is inherent in the text, as well as blending that with modern sensibilities.

"We have worked on distilling a style from the things that are in the play--the commedia tradition, the French tradition, our own tradition of emotional honesty in this country--so that the realism of the play is heightened," he says.

"It's very much on the terms of how we perceive that the piece was [done], how and why it came about and who it was for. But it's also on our terms as Americans."

If that sounds like a delicate balance to strike, it is.

"You've got to do your homework, or you have to have lived your homework, which is sort of what I did," Wadsworth says. "I spent a lot of time around 18th century art, a lot of time around the European artistic and cultural tradition, which is my heritage."

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