The Tresnjak Touch

Drawing on myth and fable, a much-in-demand director sets his imprint on neglected treasures

By Edward Karam

Director Darko Tresnjak has a pet name for the kind of play he likes best: “bruised beauties.” As he explains it, “Not everything necessarily works about them, but if you’re willing to tangle with them, there can be wonderful rewards and surprises for the audience.”

The latest bruised beauty for the Yugoslavia-born director is The Two Noble Kinsmen, a Jacobean collaboration by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher that comes around as often as doublets are in fashion. Staged at New York’s Public Theater this past fall, it will be remounted, alongside Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It, in San Diego this summer, where Tresnjak has recently been appointed artistic director for the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival. For Tresnjak, whose work has been seen chiefly in regional theatres, the Public’s production was an unusual calling card in the Big Apple.

“I’ve always thought of it as the flip side of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It,” the director says of Kinsmen, “because young people go off into the woods on a journey of self-discovery—except in this one they don’t come out innocent or reborn or whole. They come out maimed, insane, or they don’t come out at all. The first time I read it, I remember thinking about The Rite of Spring and Spring Awakening, and all these works of art with a spring setting—nature and desire pushing, clawing its way through the earth.” In The Winter’s Tale and Pericles, he adds, “there’s closure and forgiveness and reunion. That’s not the case with this play. I think it’s good to look at life both ways.”

At 38, Tresnjak has made his reputation on pieces at the margins of theatrical literature. One of his mentors in graduate school at Columbia University was Andrei Serban, who urged his protégé to inspect “all these neglected pockets of theatre,” says Tresnjak, who won TCG’s 2001 Alan Schneider award for excellence in directing. If there is a typical Tresnjak production, it is one that is nonrealistic, with strong storytelling, often encompassing myth or fable, stunning visuals and flourishes of masks and puppetry. In the Molière rarity Amphitryon, which he staged in 2002 at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston (he describes it as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), the myth was direct. But elements of myth and romance also infuse plays like The Winter’s Tale, Under Milk Wood and Princess Turandot, all staged at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Pericles, mounted last summer in San Diego. “I do these plays because I genuinely believe in them,” Tresnjak says. “They have something to say to people today. They can be vibrant experiences for the audience, not just an academic exercise.”

Tresnjak is following The Two Noble Kinsmen, which had 10 actors, some in multiple roles, with Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, a farce with six characters, at the Huntington Theatre Company in March. The smallness of these casts belies the fact that Tresnjak is one of the few young directors around who routinely directs large-scale works, including operas. (He has done The Magic Flute for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and he has Don Giovanni on his agenda as well.) And has been doing so for longer than his boyish looks indicate: Tresnjak cut his teeth in the mid-1990s at Williamstown, first with free theatre, such as Carlo Gozzi’s Princess Turandot and his own adaptation of four Arabian Nights fables, The Blue Demon.

He took on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for his first Equity work at Williamstown, and he made his mainstage debut at the Festival in 2000 with a lavish and moving production of The Skin of Our Teeth, enlisting 50 actors and 50 puppets for Thornton Wilder’s fable of the history of mankind. In recent years, Skin has been maligned as dated, but Tresnjak disagrees. Since Sept. 11, he says, it is more relevant than ever. “I think it’s an amazing play, and it works better in times of crisis than in cushiness or comfort,” he says. “I sometimes can’t believe how shortsighted people are in the way that they view history.”

Tresnjak’s own perspective derives from being an outsider assimilated into American society. Born in Zemun, Yugoslavia, he showed an early flair for theatre. At the age of seven, during the Munich Olympics in 1972, “I got all the kids on the street together, and we organized opening and closing ceremonies and medal ceremonies, and all kinds of games. We even lit a torch and put it on top of my grandmother’s house, which she wasn’t very happy with,” he says, laughing lightly. “That was my first production, and it was on a grand scale.”

His early years in Yugoslavia also fostered a love of storytelling. “Today we live in the age of Internet and computers and television and video,” he says, “but when I was a kid in Yugoslavia, there were books, Yugoslav television—nothing that I wanted to watch. And then there was storytelling—my mother’s stories of the Second World War. I think I come from a family of storytellers. Spinning a good yarn—that’s how I grew up.”

In 1976 his mother emigrated to the United States to live with his sister and brother-in-law, an American diplomat, in Washington, D.C. Tresnjak recalls that “it was two weeks before the Bicentennial celebration,” and the shock of all the pomp and circumstance, combined with a cross-country trip to Disneyland, made a strong impression. “For a 10-year-old kid, it was a magical, magical summer,” he says, “and for me emotionally there was no going back, because I had fallen in love with this country.”

He had already learned to speak English from exchange students, hippie folksingers who stayed with his family in Yugoslavia. “One day my mom was working in the house, and all of a sudden she heard this voice singing, ‘Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me,’” he recalls. “And she asked, ‘Can you speak English?’ and I was like, ‘I think so.’ I just absorbed it—osmosis.”

After his arrival in the U.S., Tresnjak attended a Montessori School in D.C., where he learned to read and write English as well, and he assimilated thoroughly. “I think he’s visually brilliant in a kind of European tradition that I admire,” says Nicholas Martin, artistic director of the Huntington, “but, unlike many European auteur directors, he has the highest respect for the text as well as the actors. He has a kind of Eastern European’s delight in the New World.” At the same time, says actress Marian Seldes, who played the Fortune Teller in The Skin of Our Teeth, “what’s surprising is that he is so American, so in love with America, and knows American life and lore.”

To cite one example, Tresnjak’s interest in American lore became the impetus for his 2000 production of Hotel Universe, one of Philip Barry’s weightier efforts. Tresnjak calls it “my guiltiest pleasure,” although the results left him unsatisfied.

“I had just read this play and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s like nothing I’ve encountered in American theatre.’ When I was a teenager I had pneumonia, and I read The Great Gatsby when I was sick, and then I read it five more times. And by the end of it I knew most of The Great Gatsby by heart,” he explains. “Hotel Universe deals with that social circle: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, the Murphys.” His interest was spurred by a meeting with Amanda Vaill, the author of Everybody Was So Young, a portrait of key characters in the Lost Generation. He studied up on Villa America, on which I is based, and learned that a suicide at the villa had inspired Barry’s play.

“There’s still almost a sort of veil over the play about what might have happened and what the story is based on,” he says, “but all of those people did witness a suicide—a man jumping off a cliff—and Philip Barry was there. In terms of space, I would love to do a similar production on a huge stage, because I’ve never done a play where I wanted to pull the characters more apart. It seemed to me that the space we had was too small to embody the sense of loss and alienation.”

Yet for all his assimilation of American life and literature, there remain aspects of Tresnjak’s talent and personality traceable to his origins. “We are both children of immigrant parents,” says costume designer Linda Cho, a close friend who has collaborated on 25 shows with Tresnjak. “We share a rich cultural heritage that feeds the way we work. In The Blue Demon, Darko referenced a Yugoslavian fairy tale, and in The Winter’s Tale we looked at Yugoslavian folkwear for Bohemia. And for better or for worse, the other part of our immigrant inheritance is a tireless work ethic. It’s not unusual for Darko to wake at five in the morning and spend a few hours working out his game plan for the day.”

On the October morning he sat down to talk in the Public Theater’s lobby, Tresnjak had been under pressure to find the right ending for Two Noble Kinsmen, but the strain wasn’t apparent. Only the night before he had tried out a new ending and decided it was the one he wanted. Other knotty issues remained, but he was focused and relaxed, often breaking into a light chuckle during the conversation.

Neglected plays often have problems, and Tresnjak approaches them with care but not reverence. The collaborative Kinsmen is hampered in some ways by its dual authorship, he says, “so in terms of putting an arc together for all of the characters, it’s tricky. You have to make some intuitive decisions. You have to make cuts. I wanted to make sure there was an arc, because there are discrepancies between Shakespeare and Fletcher. But if you take a nip and a tuck there, and if you reverse the order of certain things, there’s a wonderful payoff.” He didn’t have many qualms about removing a morris dance—“King James’s daughter liked having morris dances in her plays. They were the rage at the time”—but more typical of his tweaking was the altered ending. He lopped off the epilogue, and instead of the rueful thanks Theseus offers to the gods, interpolated a wordless scene whose discomfort and uncertainty recall the final moments of The Graduate, when Ben Braddock and Elaine exchange “What do we do now?” looks.

“A woman in a desperate situation, the Jailer’s Daughter, gets cured through rather unusual, unorthodox methods,” he explains, “and the strong, Amazon princess seems to be sliding into despair and madness. So, as one of them is getting healed, the other one’s choices are taken away from her. I think it’s interesting that conceivably the one character who’s happily in love at the end is insane, so I wanted to bring that to the stage, because it seems to me that that’s part of the play’s frightening point.”

He regards The Two Noble Kinsmen as an experiment in which “Shakespeare was after something completely new. It’s interesting, but I’m not sure that it always works. Shakespeare’s writing in this is so unusual and so different from all of his earlier work: There are moments of almost operatic excess and astonishingly violent imagery, and it just keeps going,” says Tresnjak.

Indeed, Kinsmen features a chilling implied rape of the Jailer’s Daughter by a trio of revelers wearing masks (inspired by a scene in the film The Wicker Man); she goes mad, like Ophelia, as a result. The rape was one of the instances in which the director mediated the text. “There are sinister implications throughout as to what might have happened to her,” he says, “so the rape is an interpretation, but it is based on the textual suggestions.”

Tresnjak’s background combines textual analysis with a variety of performance experience. For his undergraduate work at Swarthmore, he majored in English, but also took courses in dance and choreography, and even choreographed a production of William Walton’s Façade. After graduating, he toured on and off for five years with the Mum Puppettheatre, based in Philadelphia. “We did a lot of puppetry and mask work,” he says. “It was a whole new world opening up to me.”

But he uses such elements sparingly. “Sometimes people approach me about a project and ask, ‘Are you going to use masks? Are you going to use puppets?’ I try to be very conservative—only if it helps the storytelling,” he says. “For example, in the big battle at the end [of Kinsmen], I thought it best if it was left partially to the audience’s imagination, so we do everything with shadows against a Plexiglas wall, because it seems more interesting than having two stage combat sequences right in front of our eyes.”

Right now Tresnjak is preparing What the Butler Saw at the Huntington. Though it’s a modern play, it’s nonrealistic and has a small cast, which is fine with him. “The older I get, the more I feel the need to do intimate things,” he says. “You can’t do The Skin of Our Teeth every time. It’s backbreaking, grueling work.” Still, he hasn’t sworn off large casts: Antony and Cleopatra will have 30 actors, and he’s looking forward to it. “If Two Noble Kinsmen is about young people in love, then this is about mature love, and I’m in my thirties,” he says. “I suspect part of the reason why we chose Antony and Cleopatra is simply that, instinctually, I’m dying to wrestle with the question of mature love, seasoned love, how it lives in the world, how it lives with politics, how it lives with all kinds of external pressures.”

His wish list of projects ranges from Ibsen (“I’m always happy when I direct something with upholstery”) to Strindberg to Tennessee Williams. And he has a few more “bruised beauties” that he’s interested in. One is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci, about an abusive Italian count whose family seeks help from the church and is ignored. “I think it has a lot to say to us today, especially given what has been happening to the Catholic Church the past few years,” he says.

It’s noteworthy that his list encompasses plays already in the repertoire, familiar or not. “It’s never just a revival,” says Seldes, who has followed his work. “It’s as if everything were brand-new.”

Tresnjak knows that his fondness for dust-gatherers pretty much guarantees a career away from New York. “For the kind of work I’m interested in,” he says, “New York is less adventurous. I’m happy if I get something here once a year or once every two years.” Although he’s been a New Yorker, he’s settling in at San Diego, where his new post as artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival will give him the latitude to pursue those rarities. He has also agreed to teach MFA directing classes at the University of California at San Diego.

Resurrecting the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival is a new adventure for both Tresnjak and his boss, Jack O’Brien, the artistic director of the Old Globe. Shakespeare has not been performed in repertory at the outdoor theatre in Balboa Park in 20 years; the shows have been sequential. Tresnjak has the challenge of building a company that can handle plays that may change daily. “A director like Darko is able to bring a group of actors together and unify them without homogenizing,” says Louis Spisto, executive director of the Old Globe. “It’s rare to see someone as adept with the visuals of a production as with the language. He respects the text but finds fresh ways to present it. There are no gimmicks.”

Although both Tresnjak and O’Brien felt it was important to relaunch the festival with three Shakespeares, Tresnjak hopes to incorporate a Jacobean or Spanish Golden Age play into the mix. Looking ahead to the 2005 season, he says, “We’ll try to do a crowd-pleaser and then maybe All’s Well and then another classical playwright. All’s Well is screaming at me right now. People have such problems with Helena’s quest,” he says, referring to her unrequited love for the haughty Bertram, “and yet you turn on the TV and see these women who are Harvard graduates humiliating themselves on ‘The Bachelor’—it’s absurd.”

And in the back of his mind is one more bruised beauty that may defy even a regional production: The Siege of Numantia by Cervantes. “It reminds me of some of the things that happened in Srebrenica in Bosnia,” says Tresnjak, “when the town was surrounded. It’s a very powerful play.”

An opportunity to direct it, however, may be as scarce as a gingham dress in Britney Spears’s closet. “Last time I counted, I think there were 90 characters in it,” he says, “including allegorical figures like Death, Fame, Pestilence. That’s one I’m not counting on getting a professional opportunity to do.”

Edward Karam covers New York theatre for the British newspaper The Guardian.

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