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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bringing 'Mortal Terror' to the Stage

I love plays that view historical events and persons through a contemporary prism. I love being in rehearsal with a bunch of really smart, funny, opinionated theater artists. And I love William Shakespeare, who despite being married, possibly bisexual, definitely not Jewish, and almost 400 years dead, is one of the most important men in my life. Like Bob Brustein and Stafford Clark-Price – see blog entries below – I am a Shakespeare nerd. So odds were good that I was going to have a fine time directing Mortal Terror

Odds were also good that the process would be challenging – bringing a new play to the stage always is, no matter how long the development period. Bob completed the first draft of Mortal Terror in March 2009, and since then there have been innumerable revisions, four readings -- at the Vineyard Playhouse, A.R.T., Suffolk University’s C. Walsh Theater, and The Players Club in NY – variously involving four of the seven actors in the present cast, and some intense dramaturgy and editing in the couple of weeks before rehearsals began on August 22. No matter the advance preparation, everyone discovers the play afresh from the first day of rehearsal, as the aforesaid really smart, funny, opinionated actors engage with their characters, their relationships and their dialogue, and start mining both the text and the subtext; as design questions and elements become part of the equation; as the play gets on its feet and issues of staging and structure reveal themselves. Script changes are inevitable and constant. Time is always short. 

It is ever thus, but in the case of this play, where the language is paramount and is a very particular Brusteinean blend of Elizabethan/Jacobean and modern English, laced with Shakespeare quotes both obvious and subtle as well as contemporary references and some carefully chosen anachronisms, it was perhaps more thus than usual. We had passionate debates in rehearsal over word choices, phrasing, and rhythm. We agreed to freeze the script after two weeks, as we were heading into Tech – and found ourselves “thawing” parts of it up to and including opening night.

Overall, our collective work on this play was characterized by the creative tension between reverence and irreverence. Obviously there was much to revere: Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of all times, and Brustein, one of the great theater luminaries of our time. As Bob took Shakespeare off his pedestal to see him as a man and as a writer, and had to be irreverent in order to put words in the Bard’s mouth and both imagine and invent him, so all of us who are Bob’s collaborators had to be irreverent in order to serve the play as well as the playwright. After all it’s a play about Shakespeare, not by Shakespeare. When I’m directing a Shakespeare play and a scene is not working, I can safely assume the problem rests with me and/or the actors, not in the writing. This is not a useful assumption when working with a living writer, no matter how eminent. Fortunately, Bob revels in irreverence, as well as in collaboration, and was deeply responsive to and grateful for the many opinions and suggestions lobbed his way by virtually every member of the company. 

The tension between reverence and irreverence is everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays, as is the balance between high and low, between the ideas and references that will be understood by the happy few, those that will be understood by the groundlings, and those that will be understood by everybody. There is high wit and low humor. In a similar spirit, Bob’s play has lines, jokes, and double-entendres that will be most appreciated by Shakespeare cognoscenti, wordsmiths and theater mavens – and then it has Borscht-Belt humor, bathroom humor and fart jokes. In fact, it has farts. I discovered in this rehearsal process that everyone has an opinion -- a differing opinion -- about what makes farts funny and what makes for funny farts. For the first time in my life, I found myself writing an email – to sound designer David Remedios – with “Farts” as the subject line. I cannot imagine a more thankless assignment for a sound designer than delivering a recorded fart effect that everyone is happy with. Mission Impossible.

-Daniela Varon, Mortal Terror Director

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