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'Julius Caesar'
Jim True-Frost and Sara Kathryn Bakker in ART’s ‘‘Julius Caesar.’’ (Michael Lutch)

A need for some direction at the ART

Email|Print| Text size + By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / March 2, 2008

Let me start by stating my bias plainly. I really want to love the American Repertory Theatre, and sometimes I do. But too often I walk out of an ART performance feeling frustrated, disappointed, and puzzled by something that feels as if it just should have been better than it was.

My frustration, I think, has some of the same roots as my admiration. Before becoming the Globe's theater critic, I spent nearly five years as an arts reporter, often writing preview features in advance of a show's opening. As it happened, many of these previews concerned the ART, so I've spent a lot of hours in the company's basement rehearsal space at Zero Church Street, in its offices at the Loeb Drama Center, and in conversation with many of its staff members, directors, and actors, as well as in the audience at the Loeb and the new theater space at Zero Arrow.

Some might argue that that's too much inside information for a critic to have, and I'll admit that it's sometimes challenging for me to write a strong critique of work by people I have come to like as well as respect. (Of course, since becoming the critic I have no longer attended any rehearsals or other "backstage" events.) But I also know that having observed the process, not just the productions, at the ART has given me a deep appreciation of the company's passions, its vision, and its creative ferment. And that's why I know it could be better than it often is.

I bring this up in part because the ART is at a critical juncture in its decades-long history as a Harvard affiliate, with a university search committee apparently stalled in its quest for an artistic director to replace Robert Woodruff, whose contract wasn't renewed by the university last year. I know nothing about how that process is going, beyond that Anna D. Shapiro, a respected director from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company whose "August: Osage County" is now on Broadway, turned the job down, and that the search is continuing. But I do know that the committee has no hope of finding the right artistic director if it doesn't have a very, very clear sense of the artistic direction it wants the ART to take.

But I'm also moved to write by some recent experiences in other theaters, experiences that created the sense of excitement and vitality that are a huge part of why I go to the theater in the first place. In three fairly different venues - the Providence institution that is Trinity Repertory Company, the small back space at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre that was temporarily occupied by a Way Theatre Artists production, and the sui generis Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts (in the basement of the Fenway nightclub Machine) that the Gold Dust Orphans call home - I saw three very different plays, but each of them left me feeling awake, alive, and lucky to have been there.

And each of them, I soon realized, was the kind of play that the ART could be doing. At Trinity, "Some Things Are Private" is a new work by two local playwrights that uses the photographs of Sally Mann to craft a cogent, thought-provoking conversation about artistic freedom and responsibility. The new fringe company Way Theatre Artists presented the Boston premiere of "Love-Lies-Bleeding" by the novelist Don DeLillo - whose two previous plays, "Valparaiso" and "The Day Room," received their world premieres at the ART. And the Gold Dust Orphans served up a raucously funny and highly intelligent reimagining of a classic play, "Medea."

In the same week, I also saw director Arthur Nauzyciel's "Julius Caesar" at the ART. I had been looking forward to it, because Nauzyciel has a strong reputation in his native France and has done interesting-sounding work in Atlanta, and because the idea of setting this deeply political play in the United States of John F. Kennedy promised some fascinating resonances. As it turned out, however, the '60s setting offered plenty of stylishness but very little substance that I could see; this production looks great but has not much new to say about Caesar, Shakespeare, or, for that matter, contemporary politics. Suspending a vintage Oldsmobile over the stage - apparently in an attempt to evoke JFK's fatal ride in Dallas - may look cool and cost plenty, but it's hard to see what it's really adding to our experience of the play.

The danger in making such a criticism is that I can sound as if I don't want to see any wildness, any "avant-garde" interpretations or risk-taking onstage, and nothing could be further from the truth. I want wild and risky; I want unexpected; I want weird. But it has to be good weird. As Woodruff used to say, citing a favorite remark of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, it has to be "distant and right." A hanging Olds (wasn't Kennedy in a Lincoln, anyway?) is distant and wrong.

Bringing Nauzyciel to Cambridge was part of interim artistic director Gideon Lester's admirable commitment to the ART's traditional enthusiasm for inviting international artists to the United States. It's unique, really, among regional US theaters in doing that, and its international perspective is a valuable part of the company's identity. But it may also cause some of its difficulties, as European directors, particularly, are accustomed to far longer rehearsal periods and larger budgets than any US theater can provide; put big dreams in a tight budget with no time, and you're almost asking for a letdown.

So what's the solution? Part of it, I think, depends on Harvard. The relationship between the ART and its parent university has always been a complicated one, with roots in the even more complicated history of the company's founder, Robert Brustein, at his previous academic home, Yale. But that history is increasingly remote, and the search for a new director offers the ideal moment for both the university and the theater to rethink what they want from each other and what they're willing to give.

For a lot of reasons - not just the selfish ones of a regular theatergoer, but also my deeply held belief that the arts are an essential part of any real education - I'd like to see Harvard give the ART a lot more money. If a university with billions of dollars in the bank can't fully support an adventurous theater, who on earth can?

But I also know that Harvard, like any canny investor, isn't going to pony up the big bucks unless it foresees a reasonable return on its investment. That return may not have to come in the form of cold cash; intellectual richness, international cachet, and free-flowing creativity are all valuable assets for a university. Such qualities are all ones that the ART is capable of delivering; it certainly has done so in the past and continues to have a strong international presence, not just by bringing Nauzyciel and other artists here but by taking its own productions to Edinburgh and, currently, Hong Kong.

It would help, though, to have more of the kind of energy that's emanating from Providence or Machine. And some of that energy, I'm convinced, arises from the power of having a truly repertory theater, which after all is right there in the ART's logo.

Both the drag-loving Gold Dust Orphans and the classically trained Trinity actors have been working together for years, though they also keep things fresh by having a fairly large troupe and by regularly bringing in new collaborators. Their shared history and mutual depth of understanding makes it easier for them to create rich, multilayered, and meaningful work. It also means that they know their audiences, they know their communities, and they know how to make connections between even the wildest new art and the people who will be seeing it for the first time.

The ART has people who know that, too. I just hope they get a chance to show us what they can do.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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