Director vs. text, round 2; Robert Falls and Chris Jones, Stephen Sondheim and the New York Times

August 15, 2011

When last Sunday's New York Times described with sympathy director Diane Paulus's radical approach to Porgy & Bess. the story provoked an episode of high dudgeon from Stephen Sondheim, who argued that the changes proposed would create not the Gershwins' Porgy & Bess but Ms. Paulus's. Mr. Sondheim's objection, he emphasized, was not to the as-yet-unseen production but to the director's attitude (as he understood it) toward both text and audience.

So when this Sunday's Chicago Tribune described with admiration Robert Falls's radical approaches to King Lear and Desire Under the Elms, I felt bolstered in my own episodes of high dudgeon concerning those productions. The issue is less the productions themselves than the attitude ascribed to Mr. Falls toward audience and text alike.

Chris Jones begins his article with an approving citation of Mr. Falls's comment on a snowy opening night that he was glad the weather would keep "the riff-raff" out of the theater. I suspect Mr. Falls was joking but Mr. Jones chose to take him at his word, and to ground the rest of his hagiographic portrait in precisely the notion that Mr. Falls's work is so radical and original that it outstrips the capacity of the audience to understand it. Again, I seriously doubt this is Mr. Falls's actual belief, but the idea that it would be admirable if it were reveals an attitude toward the audience that casts an unattractive light on Mr. Jones, Mr. Falls or both.

And then there's the issue of the text. Mr. Jones praises the Falls King Lear for its "robust physical and intellectual idea for every last breathing beat of that magnum opus," while I'm less interested in wildly original beats than in interpretations of entire plays. At the risk of sounding hopelessly pre-postmodern, I believe the director's job is to figure out what the play means — and yes, that incorporates what the author intended, even if his/her intentions are as far from the results as "What you say/what your dog hears."* 

Mr. Falls clearly approaches most texts from the perspective of, "What's never been done to this text before?" Sometimes this results in phenomenal perspective-altering work, a multi-level Seagull emphasizing the parallels between Chekhov's play and Hamlet, or a brilliant Long Day's Journey Into Night demonstrating that the play belongs to Mary and not to the three men who surround and attempt to dominate her, or a production of Dollhouse, Rebecca Gilman's adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, that manages to be as radical in our time as Ibsen was in his. These productions (and many others over the years of his tenure at the Goodman and Wisdom Bridge) represent approaches to text that are fresh but also respectful of what the play is actually about.

But sometimes the search for what's never been done results in the mugging of a defenseless text by a pitiless concept. Mr. Falls's King Lear was about sex while Shakespeare's is about death. Mr. Falls's Desire Under the Elms, conversely, was about death while O'Neill's is about sex. Play texts are not infinitely malleable: if the playwright calls for elms on stage, even naming the play after them, there damn well ought to be elms on stage. If a play's text is unsatisfactory to the director--if s/he wants to communicate something else--then s/he should direct a different play. 

But was Mr. Sondheim really reacting to Ms. Paulus's behavior, or just to its description in the Times? Likewise, am I reacting to Mr. Falls, or just to Mr. Jones?

I guess it's a matter of interpretation.

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*What you say: "You're a bad girl, Daisy! Never do that again, Daisy! I'm telling you for the last time, Daisy! Are you listening to me, Daisy?"

What your dog hears: "Flooble-flooble, Daisy! Inka-dinka, Daisy! Klatu barata nikto, Daisy! Scooby-dooby-do, Daisy?"