What drew director Max Truax to Heiner Muller’s forbidding “Hamletmachine”? Until Trap Door’s current production, it hadn’t been performed in Chicago since 2001, when an Argentine company did its puppet adaptation here.
“I had a dream,” says Truax. “It wasn’t a sleeping dream, I was half-awake. I was dreaming about directing another Trap Door play, but when I woke up, tossing and turning, I was directing ‘Hamletmachine.’ So I went to Beata [Pilch, artistic director of Trap Door] and asked her to do the play.” About a year later she gave him the green light, and Truax brought on composer Jonathan Guillen to make an opera of sorts out of Muller’s jagged poetry.
Truax, 35, is no stranger to the form. He wrote an opera adaptation of “King Lear,” called “Furniture,” in his senior year at Oberlin. But for his first two and a half years there, he was an art major.
“I had a drawing teacher who forced us to go to a dance class to observe and draw,” he says. “The next day he surprised us: we had to dance with the class. It was improv dance to music, and at first everyone was scared. But then I was transformed. That was the turning point that brought me to theater.” He ended up with a degree in performance art and choreography.
“But I hate being onstage,” Truax says. “I like the rehearsals and the exploration of ideas and making connections with people. But the hours and hours of terror before and after performances, which I did in college, drove me away. When I went into larger venues, which true performers feed off, it made me sick. The alkaline taste in my mouth, I had to pee every 40 seconds, I couldn’t hear anything except the beating of my own heart. I always felt I was on autopilot onstage.”
I guess we should be glad he didn’t become a performer. When Truax went to Cal Arts for his MFA, he promised himself he wouldn’t even be a theater director. “But I had a great mentor,” he says. “He broke me. He made sure I knew I was directing a story. Once I had that piece of the puzzle, there was no turning back. I had been panning for gold, and he showed me the vein.”
Though Truax spent a few years in LA after graduating, he says the theater community there is, “defeated by the landscape and the demands of the film industry.” He moved to Chicago in September 2006 and began directing, mostly for Trap Door and Oracle Productions (where he’ll stage “Woyzeck” in March)—though he directed Bertolt Brecht’s “In the Jungle of Cities” for Ka-Tet last fall.
“‘Jungle’ had a lot of architecture,” Truax says. “The characters are drawn, the action is there. Muller’s script is so open—we had no resistance to our ideas. Anything we threw at it could work. At first that was delightful. Then it started to become frustrating… This process was so fluid—nothing that we started with stuck.”(photo courtesy of Trap Door Theatre/Michal Janicki)
Truax’s highly visual production of Muller’s despairing play—he says he’s often inspired by Picasso, Magritte, Chagall, Anselm Kiefer—uses flickering post-apocalyptic fluorescent lights and scuffed plastic curtains to create a nightmare world. Red crosses like anonymous grave markers litter the stage, and the players sometimes move them silently over the floor’s outline of Denmark in a game Truax says is meant to suggest “chess or Risk. Or the war rooms in World War II movies.”
He split Hamlet among three actors and Ophelia between two (or three) partly out of “impulse,” he says. “The text is very dense, every word was thought out. It’s not stream-of-consciousness. I see ‘Hamletmachine’ as a play about impressions. You can dig deep, but the impressions are what captivate us.”
“I’m trying to get away from difficult plays. But I like to solve the puzzle. Why is this play so important—and so challenging?”