Is this really what Chekhov had in mind? Innovative directors at the Guthrie put personal stamp on the classics

It's at least the fifth time that Lucian Pintilie has bounded onto the stage this morning. The controversial Romanian director of stage, television, and film is leading a rehearsal of Moliere's ribald comedy ''Tartuffe,'' his second production at the Guthrie Theater (scheduled to run through Sept. 2).

He is having trouble communicating the precise combination of gestures and grimaces he wants from his actors. So, once again, he leaps to the stage and walks through the business himself, half closing his eyes and feeling his way through each beat, cuing actors, soundman, and lighting booth.

For a moment, he looks like a one-man show; and in a way, that is just what he is.

Like his countrymen Liviu Ciulei, artistic director of the Guthrie, and Andre Serban, as well as a flock of modern directors of other nationalities, Pintilie projects himself - his own visions, projects, and metaphors - into the plays he works on. His much-argued-about production of Chekhov's ''The Sea Gull'' here in January rejiggered the order of scenes in the play and left more lasting impressions of Pintilie's grimly beautiful imagery than of Chekhov's characters and dramatic situations.

This method of working has become increasingly widespread among theater directors in recent years; and it is probably an inevitable outcome of the artistic supremacy seized by film directors. Such theatrical figures as Pintilie , Serban, Richard Foreman, and the peripatetic young American Peter Sellars have put their personal stamps on the classics in a string of daring, often controversial productions.

Serban began Chekhov's ''Uncle Vanya'' recently with the play's last speech. Other classics have been either rearranged or so heavily interpreted that one sees them only through a director's mind ... often darkly.

When these leaps of imagination work, as in Sellars's ''Pericles'' (Shakespeare) at the Boston Shakespeare Company last season, they take the imagination by full force. When they don't, as in Andre Serban's production of Chekhov's ''Three Sisters'' at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge two seasons ago, they seem to be exercises in self-adulation.

Either way, one is left thinking that a good, solid, straight-ahead, inspired production of a classic might not only dazzle the intellect, but deeply satisfy the soul as well. After all, how many leaps into the void does it take before the longing for terra firma becomes overwhelming?

Liviu Ciulei seemed to anticipate this question in his recent production of ''Three Sisters.''

Arguably the most mature talent among the current crop of stage directors, Ciulei has demonstrated an ability to make his daring ideas - such as surrounding Prospero's island in Shakespeare's ''Tempest'' with a bloody moat filled with the flotsam of 20th-century culture - organic to the meaning of the play. His version of Shakespeare's ''Twelfth Night'' later this season at the Guthrie seems all the more welcome in the wake of his production of ''Three Sisters,'' which just closed. In it, Ciulei's vision came so close to Chekhov's that it was impossible to distinguish between the two.

''I intend to direct this play very much as it was written,'' Ciulei told a local reporter, while the director was still in rehearsal. And that's just what he did ... with sometimes overwhelming consequences.

Since Chekhov is about as good a litmus test of directing as you're going to find, and all three Romanian directors have mounted his plays in recent seasons, Ciulei's production inevitably led one to ruminate about these directors and their different methods.

Andre Serban's almost wild-man approach to ''Three Sisters'' in Cambridge earned high credits from some national critics. And more's the pity: because it was a fraud. Serban turned the play into a three-ring circus, the characters whirling around a hard, luminous stage scattered with leaves. What the director was after, it seemed, was a fragmenting of the play's elements - one that would yield some deeper truth about its inner forces.

But this is a work by a playwright who insisted that his scenes should come off so naturally that you might feel you were in a railroad station watching a family waiting for a train.

That's a far cry from the white inferno that Lucian Pintilie gave us in his production of ''The Sea Gull'' last season. The saving grace was that Pintilie was obviously so enamored of, and committed to, the play's poetic inner imagery that his devices had bearing on the meaning of the work. He used the fear of death that glows malevolently at the heart of the play to sear the audience; and its touch felt like dry ice. Still, it did not altogether feel like the touch of Chekhov.

Which brings us to Ciulei's production at the Guthrie. Ciulei once told me that ''there is no reason a set should not be so beautiful as to make you cry.'' Well, this set probably brought tears to no one's eyes; but it entranced you with its high crystalline windows, deceptive spaces, and magically distinct ambiance - drawing you into the moods of the work. Ciulei's use of these spaces - putting the dinner scenes behind glass, like some precious thing to be lovingly preserved, for instance - created these moods almost invisibly. The bright, effervescent first act melted gracefully into the darkly moody second, and so on to the play's despairing end.

From the start, Ciulei moved in cautiously, discovering the play's inner tensions and relationships and gentle humor. He acted like some respectful guest , patiently waiting to know the family better. He demonstrated the sensitivity to make the family and its satellite characters something real, human, and warm. I guess this is the ingredient that so often seems missing in high-powered, techno-brilliant sendups of these works: the people and their real lives.

Ciulei's production left you so wrapped up in the sisters' lives that the play's philosophical themes, like the consuming of all that was beautiful in old Russia by a blind commercialism, just sort of occurred to you in the back of your mind.

And it was Chekhov's themes that made themselves felt, not those of a director using a classic to bring off his own burning inspiration. Ciulei's ''Three Sisters'' did not leave you wishing that the new-wave Young Turks would leave the classics alone; but it did remind us that, in the hands of a mature craftsman who treats the material with respect, old masters like Chekhov will naturally reveal the secret pleasures of their most magnificent moments.

That may be the most daring, inventive accomplishment of all.

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