Director Liviu Ciulei doesn't believe in embalming the classics

THE theater is an event for an evening. It's like an article in the newspaper -- you read it, then you pack the fish in it.'' This comment comes from a creatively explosive force in world theater: Liviu Ciulei, artistic director of one of America's best regional theaters -- the Guthrie.

Mr. Ciulei is known for his sometimes radical assault on time-honored staging traditions, and his current production of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' at the Guthrie is a potent example. But despite its success, one way of doing a play -- no matter how effective -- should never become a model, in his view.

``If the event is important, it remains in your consciousness,'' Ciulei explains. ``But it isn't a book which you keep on your shelf. It isn't a painting which you can keep on the wall. Wherever it appears, it's just confronting the spectator with himself.''

And the best way to do this, according to Ciulei, is by fearlessly bringing current values and issues -- sometimes from the avant-garde -- into the action on stage. After all, the spectator who sees a classic is a modern man, and somehow his contemporary thought needs to be linked to the classic's timeless meaning.

``We have to relate to the past and we have to confront the new,'' he says. ``This intersection, this crossway, between yesterday and tomorrow is exciting and very powerful. We don't burn the library of Alexandria. We keep it. We regret that it was burned. But still it's good not to be the slaves of tradition and to go on to find the aesthetics of our time.''

In person, this disrupter of theatrical norms seemed notably gentle, polite, and solicitous when we spoke here in his Guthrie office. He answered questions unhesitatingly but quietly, apologizing (unnecessarily) for his Romanian accent -- a courtly, smiling figure with suit jacket draped elegantly around his shoulders.

During his 40 years as a director, as well as an actor and designer, Ciulei's career has earned him a formidable international reputation for boldness and insight. For 10 years (1962-72) he headed Bucharest's Bulandra Theater, the leading repertory theater in his native Romania. It was like the Guthrie in scale and operation, mounting new productions each year and keeping many others in its seasonal repertory.

His impact there was felt not only in what he staged -- productions ranging from Gorky to Tennessee Williams -- but in the cue his work gave younger directors like Andrei Serban. He has also directed notable Romanian films, including ``Forest of the Hanged,'' winner of the Best Direction award at the 1965 Cannes festival.

Stage companies in other countries on both sides of the Atlantic felt the tremors of his disruptive talent and began inviting him to be a guest director. His United States debut was the 1974 premi`ere -- at Washington's Arena Stage -- of B"uchner's ``Leonce and Lena,'' for which Ciulei was both director and designer. Since then he's directed for the Juilliard School and the Acting Company in New York, both Spoleto Festivals (in Italy and Charleston, S.C.), and elsewhere.

In the fall of 1980, after a 14-month search by the Guthrie, Ciulei joined the company. His tenure since then has produced respect, a bit of awe, and sometimes controversy with works like O'Neill's ``Long Day's Journey into Night,'' Shakespeare's ``As You Like It,'' Ibsen's ``Peer Gynt,'' and Chekhov's ``Three Sisters.'' And he brought in other contemporary-minded directors, like Serban and Peter Sellars, for specific productions.

At the moment, Ciulei is in Cardiff, Wales, directing the opera ``Falstaff'' for an arts festival there. He plans to return to the US in mid-November. For reasons he'd still rather not explain in detail, Ciulei will leave the Guthrie after after his final production there -- ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' [reviewed in these pages Aug. 15] -- closes on Oct. 20.

``Dream'' makes a compelling argument for Ciulei's penetrating way of bringing contemporary issues to the fore in a classic. It is a brilliant if slightly outlandish feat of directorial magic, in which a running theme of gender conflict and other issues is woven -- through staging alone, without changing the words -- into Shakespeare's drama of mixed-up loves in the world of humans and fairies. The play becomes an illuminating vehicle for these ideas, but sometimes it's at the expense of literal meanin g in some of the Bard's lines.

Why not stage the great classics with no special modern slant?

``If you do it straight, I'd say, I don't believe it,'' Ciulei answers. ``Why? I think if you read it at home, you can have all the interpretations possible and the freedom to choose your interpretation. If we show it on stage, whatever we do, we will interpret. We are interpreters. The book has one entity on the shelf, but on stage it has another life.''

But what about the cries of horror from traditionalists -- those dismayed, for instance, whenever a ``Dream'' production doesn't use costumes that reflect the play's ancient Greek setting?

``What does tradition mean?'' he asks. ``How should we do this play traditionally? We don't know how Shakespeare did it. Nobody knows. We call traditional what we inherited as late 19th-century production. And that was the result of . . . the historical determinations of that time. Why should we repeat it?''

Why is it that a play like ``Dream'' can be done so many ways and still enthrall audiences?

``It's the universality. If I'm doing [Marsha Norman's contemporary play] ` 'Night, Mother,' I will be restricted to the environment which enabled this play to appear. . . . If I'm doing the Greeks, you can do it in a hundred ways.''

Specifically, were there other things that shaped his version of ``Dream''?

``I was very impressed with the 1970 [``Dream''] production of Peter Brooke which I saw when it toured Bucharest, Romania. Just as I was tremendously impressed with `King Lear' -- he did that earlier. Those two productions have influenced our [Romania's] theater and my work.''

Mr. Brooke's production of ``Dream'' combined images from old tradition and modern technology. ``I restudied what he did,'' Ciulei recounts. ``For me, his `Midsummer Night's Dream' had extraordinary significance because it . . . condensed without words the essentiality of where we are as a culture in 1970. The result was stunning, because it was the most enlightening image for me about our culture.''

This kind of impact can be achieved much more readily at a regional theater like the Guthrie, Ciulei feels, than on Broadway.

``At the moment it plays a very great role, the regional theater,'' he says. ``It's a theater where things happen. Things don't happen on Broadway at the moment. But they happen at the American Rep Theatre [in Cambridge, Mass.]; they happen in Washington at the Arena and at the National Theatre, and they happen in other places -- maybe sporadically still.

``We have started it now. . . . It will have a great impact on Broadway -- theater which represents an image of what we are today, and not just entertainment, not just a garage where you bring in show after show.''

How long does it take a regional company to have its own character?

``It takes about 5 to 10 years,'' Ciulei says. ``Then it may be stuck in its own prejudice and preconceptions. That's the danger. Renewal must be always there. The ability to renew, to bring new life, new blood. Somebody asked me how to keep regional theater alive. I said, not by embalming it.''

Ciulei feels the same way about his current production of ``Dream.''

``Tomorrow it must be done differently,'' he acknowledges. ``It shouldn't be a model for anyone. I hate models. It should be one of the bricks which form this unpredictable construction which is called culture. The brick underneath is Peter Brooke's brick. This one is my brick. Somebody else should put another one over it.''

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