DruidSynge: Theater: The Ensembles; Theatrical Collectives and European Unions

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Theater: The Ensembles; Theatrical Collectives and European Unions

by Charles Isherwood, The New York Times Sunday 25 December 2005

AMID the blizzard of lists swirling through the mass media at this time of year, larger observations can easily get lost in a hail of opinion. I’m happily going list-less this season—compiling the year’s low points would be about as appealing as eating fruitcake from last Christmas—but in looking back at my year of theatergoing, one striking impression did emerge, a conclusion that inspires a prescription for bettering the New York theater in a small way. That this prescription is sure to go unfilled can’t stop me from making it.

As Ben Brantley notes in his assessment of the year’s finest performances, it was an impressive year for ensemble work on New York stages. (I’d add the scrumptiously sozzled crew from the New Group production of ‘’Abigail’s Party’’ to his list of collective bests.) But the most seamlessly integrated feats of ensemble acting I witnessed in the past year came from troupes visiting from (or seen) abroad.

The astounding simplicity and transparency of the performances in Ariane Mnouchkine’s ‘’Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)’’ far outshone the production’s text and even Ms. Mnouchkine’s inventive stagecraft. The company of actors imported from Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough, England, brought a wondrous mixture of compassion and sly humor to Mr. Ayckbourn’s ‘’Private Fears in Public Places,’’ which played all too briefly this summer at the 59E59 Theaters.

The Shakespeare’s Globe staging of ‘’Measure for Measure,’’ which runs through Jan. 1 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, features as rich a mixture of comic performances as I’ve ever witnessed in a Shakespeare production. And in Dublin, watching Garry Hynes’s Druid Theater Company perform the canon of the Irish playwright J. M. Synge in its entirety in a single day, I marveled at the pungency and intensity of the acting throughout. (Great news on this front: DruidSynge, as the cycle is called, will be performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in July.)

Am I suggesting that foreigners are better actors? Obviously not. What is significant, though, is that the actors involved in all the productions I’ve mentioned shared some history. Ms. Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil is an extreme example of the fruits of togetherness: The company, based in Paris, lives and works together for months on end when creating a new project, and the intimacy pays off in the remarkably unself-conscious acting that brought such a sense of immediacy to the complex, often remote narrative of ‘’Odyssées.’’

Most of the actors in ‘’Private Fears’’ were regulars at Mr. Ayckbourn’s home base in southern England, and most of the cast of ‘’Measure for Measure’’ consists of staple performers from the Shakespeare’s Globe company. Ms. Hynes has worked for years with some of the central performers in the Druid cycle, notably Marie Mullen, who starred on Broadway in her production of ‘’The Beauty Queen of Leenane.’’

True theatrical collectives—companies of actors and artists who repeatedly work together to hone their craft, establishing a cohesive aesthetic—remain a vital part of the European theatrical landscape. By contrast, the phenomenon is virtually nonexistent in the upper realms of New York theater, where the demands of the marketplace reign supreme and even the finest casts are assembled for a single production.

What we lose out on is what I found so transfixing in the productions mentioned: the singular ability of a unified company of actors to conjure a world that compels us with its truth, whatever the style or tone of the material. This is something different in kind from assembling an array of terrific performers for just one occasion.

The effect is hard to define, but you know it when you see it (or rather feel it) and when you don’t. It may be easiest to note its presence in productions of Chekhov, whose plays are as concerned with the collective destinies of families and cultures as they are with the fates of individuals. This all-important dramatist goes unperformed on New York’s major stages for years on end, and it’s probably just as well. His work tends to get massacred when it’s approached with the usual classic-revival recipe: Assemble the needed name stars with holes in their television or film schedules, hire a hot director and hope for the best.

Mike Nichols’s star-spangled staging of ‘’The Seagull’’ in Central Park a few years ago was a dispiriting case in point. The production featured many gifted actors with ample stage experience—Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, to name just two—but their acting styles were so diverse they didn’t always seem to be performing in the same play.

I recently noted with displeasure the tendency of the city’s top not-for-profit institutions to employ the same directors and writers repeatedly, so putting forward the idea of establishing a collective of actors may seem a little perverse. It’s also quixotic. So call me a perverse dreamer, but if I could wave a magic wand and effect a single change in the New York theater I might choose to establish a repertory company of skilled and experienced actors—let’s call them the Dick Wolf Players—and give them the freedom and resources to work together on a season of plays, new and old. Or, better yet, several seasons.

They would need a director, of course. The companies I mention above are led by directors, with the exception of Shakespeare’s Globe, where the actor Mark Rylance is artistic director. Mr. Nichols is an enticing idea. But from the current crop of favorites I’d be inclined to nominate Scott Elliott, whose work with the New Group on the plays of Mike Leigh and on David Rabe’s ‘’Hurlyburly’’ has set a high standard for ensemble work. I haven’t forgotten that Mr. Elliott stumbled badly with Chekhov’s ‘’Three Sisters’’ for the Roundabout Theater Company several years ago, but he has matured as a director since then, and the key here is creating a collective, continuing project.

Alternatively—here I wave the wand again—it might be interesting to see what a superb stage actor like Liev Schreiber could achieve if he committed himself to working with some of the same actors and artists on a series of productions, say once a season, over several years. Mr. Rylance’s terrific stewardship of Shakespeare’s Globe in its first decade is an impressive example of how an actor’s hand at the helm can lead to great things.

Of course, for any of this to take place, that magic wand would have to work overtime to eliminate the primary obstacle to establishing any such company: actors’ need to earn a real living by procuring as much television and film work as they can. (I bear in mind Tony Randall’s valiant but ill-fated National Actors’ Theater as a painful example of a failed attempt to establish this kind of theater in New York.)

Most trained actors worship at the shrine of Chekhov, but shrines don’t dispense gold coins. I know it’s preposterous to expect gifted actors to forgo earning real money in their prime years to create a first-rate repertory company in the country’s theater capital that could compare to the finest in Europe. But this is the time of year when visions of sugarplums are expected to dance in our heads, isn’t it? I think I’ll let mine dance a little while longer, if you don’t mind.