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Call it `Carmen du Soleil'

La Jolla cast members and staff writer Diane Haithman get a crash course in the madness and method of Cirque vet Franco Dragone.

June 17, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

THIS could be the end of the story, not the beginning. Or maybe it's the middle -- or somewhere in between.

That's just the way theater director Franco Dragone works. Not from beginning to end but oddly out of order, somewhat like the speech pattern of "Star Wars' " aged Jedi master, Yoda: "When 900 years you reach, look as good you will not."

Born in Italy and raised in Belgium, Dragone -- veteran director of 10 Cirque du Soleil shows as well as the Las Vegas extravaganzas "Le Reve" at the Wynn hotel-casino and Celine Dion's "A New Day ..." -- is equally likely to address his multilingual cast and crew in English or in French. But in any language, the word "consecutive" does not seem to exist in his vocabulary.

At least, it hasn't been during the highly nonlinear rehearsal process for Dragone's new production of "Carmen," opening today at the La Jolla Playhouse.

This is not Bizet's 1875 opera, virtually always performed in French, but a flamenco-flavored contemporary musical version of "Carmen," performed in English, with book by Sarah Miles, music by John Ewbank and lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo, to have its world premiere in La Jolla. Like the opera, it is based on Prosper Merimee's 1845 novella "Carmen," the tragic tale of the gypsy Carmen and her murderous soldier lover Don Jose.

It is also Dragone's first time directing a book musical. And the "Carmen" budget, about $2.5 million, is profoundly more modest than the reported $90 million he had available for the water spectacular "Le Reve," which included the cost of a 2,087-seat custom-built theater.

Dragone calls his director's process "shaking the stage" -- and he thinks it's time to shake up American musical theater.

"I don't work chronologically, you know," he says, with obvious pride, during a recent post-rehearsal conversation at the Playhouse. "Logic is the biggest enemy of the theater; this is old-fashioned theater. I don't know why people would go to see this. So we need to shake the stage, to explore."

Suffice it to say: When with conventional direction it is approached, look as good "Carmen" will not. "We want to do a crazy 'Carmen,' a crazy show," Dragon asserts. "I don't want to do the 'Carmen' that everybody knows."

For Cirque du Soleil's signature acrobatic fantasies, as well his other Vegas shows, Dragone says, the visual has always taken precedence over the word, spoken or sung. He sees no reason to change that now.

"I come from a school where I had to tell stories, to talk to people without dialogue," he says. "For me, dialogue is more like the subtitles than the main point.

"What I try to do with my work is to do like the painter Francis Bacon says, to make images that talk, images that think. So I learn to work with the actor on the silence, not on the words. While you are waiting, the audience is wondering: 'What are you going to say?' I love to work with the imagination."

There are no guarantees that this production is headed for Broadway, but, says costume designer Suzy Benzinger, "I've worked on Broadway for 30 years. Thirty years! '42nd Street,' 'Dreamgirls,' I've done them all. Those are formula shows that work a certain way. It's fun to shake things up a little bit."

The off-kilter advantage

NOT surprisingly, Dragone's process has left the actors a little, well, shaken. "The first three weeks we had a really difficult time," Dragone admits. "The process in America is, they want to be reassured as fast as possible. I need to be trusted because I will put you in a position of uncertainty until very far in the process."

He pauses.

"Can I have a pen?" Dragone asks, helping himself to a pen and pad of paper. He flips to a blank page and starts to draw. A circle in the middle. Then smaller satellite circles around the planet -- one, two, three. He starts to draw a fourth, then scribbles it out. Each smaller circle represents an offshoot of the original idea, an experiment. The one he scribbles out represents the reject. This excited doodle represents Scene 1.

He talks as he draws. "I find a beautiful moment here that translates visually into what the scene is about," he says. "Here, I find another maybe. Here I find nothing -- then here, I find another. And when I have these three beautiful moments, or flowers, I will put them in order. Then I move on to Scene 2."

The performers are slowly getting used to finding flowers instead of running lines. "Usually, the first day, you sit down and you read your script, " says Janien Valentine, who stars as the bewitching gypsy Carmen. "But instead of diving into the script and pulling from the meat of the dialogue, he moves in a totally opposite direction. He is very visual; he is into creating these beautiful pictures. It's very challenging, because we're not used to working this way."

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