The Provocateur

Thomas Derrah, playing the title character in Shakespeare's Richard II, walked onstage near the start of each performance in an enormous, hooped Elizabethan dress and crowned with a goofy white diadem one critic likened to a Ping-Pong ball. And, at least early in the play's monthlong run at Harvard's Loeb Drama Center a year ago, a small but noticeable number of American Repertory Theatre patrons walked out.

A famously acerbic and conservative reviewer did likewise. The production “made my gorge rise uncontrollably, until my feet carried me out — giggling, groaning, and despairing — at intermission,” wrote New York magazine drama critic John Simon. “What this augurs for the A.R.T., my pen lacks acid, arsenic, and sulphur to convey in so short a space.”

The local critics, though their reception was calmer and more evenhanded, invariably quibbled with artistic director Robert Woodruff for having made the self-absorbed, spendthrift king so flamboyantly gay. “A noble failure,” the Herald's Terry Byrne called the production. When, after the opening murder scene, Derrah “comes out looking more like Clarabell the clown than Richard the king,” wrote the Globe's Ed Siegel, “it gets harder to take the proceedings seriously.”

Then there was the other strange imagery: The murder of the Duke of Gloucester by a male seducer in Woodruff's opening act (a prelude to Shakespeare's own first scene, the showdown between Mowbray and Bolingbroke that provokes the king to banish them), Richard seated at a vanity table set up just offstage — smoking holdered cigarettes, primping, gazing adoringly in the mirror — whenever he was not part of the play's main action, the hot-pink bathhouse scene, in which white-swaddled young hunks sprawled on benches as if auditioning for a Calvin Klein underwear ad, and a similarly attired Richard distractedly fondling several of his favorites as John of Gaunt, trussed up on an upright hospital gurney, delivered his death speech.

Though that sort of thing mostly disappeared by intermission, even the more receptive critics thought it diverted attention from Shakespeare's poetry and compromised his plot. “Richard's decadence is off-putting,” argued Siegel, “not because he's gay but because he seems so uninterested in the affairs of state that his overthrow lacks any dramatic tension.”

A year later, all of this matters because of a transfer of power offstage: Woodruff, the director of this controversial work and many others, will succeed Robert Brustein, whose production of Lysistrata this month will be his last as artistic director.

Brustein's imprint will remain. The company of actors he began assembling 23 years ago will stay intact, and it was Brustein himself (working with then-Harvard President Neil Rudenstine, Harvard dean Jeremy Knowles, and longtime A.R.T. managing director Robert J. Orchard) who tapped the 55-year-old Woodruff to succeed him. Two newly promoted Brustein protégés will collaborate with Woodruff in overseeing the A.R.T. and its Harvard-affiliated Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. Orchard, 55, becomes executive director; and Gideon Lester, 29, plucked just after completing his institute studies by Brustein five years ago to become the company's first resident dramaturge, adds the title associate artistic director.

But it is the artistic director who has the largest say in what gets performed by the company and by whom, and Woodruff, unlike his cohorts, comes from outside the nationally influential company. Though his two previous A.R.T. productions as director — Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities in 1998 and Charles L. Mee's Full Circle in 2000 — won the Elliot Norton Award as the best-directed productions at a large resident company in their respective years, Woodruff remains relatively unfamiliar. All of which begs the important question: What does Robert Woodruff's ascension to artistic director augur for the A.R.T.?

A good guess would be yet more envelope-pushing interpretations of classics. At least that's what's suggested by the most recent Woodruff-directed project in Cambridge, an adaptation of the Phaedra myth concerning a woman's tragic, illicit love for her stepson, put on by 18 first-year institute students.

Woodruff — tall, thin, his short gray ponytail knotted in a ball — paced in front of the audience as the students prepared to stage a walk-through of the performance in the basement of the First Unitarian Universalist Church. Dressed entirely in black (black shirt, black vest, black Levi's), he might have come off as intimidating had he not been placidly chewing gum, or so quick to fetch folding chairs himself to help accommodate the afternoon's overflow audience of mostly actors, students, and their instructors. Woodruff made a quick announcement about how this performance would be based primarily on Racine's Phèdre, the lights dimmed, and the action got under way.

This Phaedra, which Woodruff spliced together from 57 pages of student-penned adaptations, opened with Hippolytus seated in a chair, naked from the waist up, his stepmother standing beside him awkwardly balancing a large stack of gift boxes as they discuss what he'd like for his birthday. In classic versions of the tale, Hippolytus's moral rectitude verges on obnoxiousness; here he's a foulmouthed nihilist with deep sadomasochistic tendencies. When Phaedra can't come up with a gift the overgrown brat wants, she makes a present of herself; the student actress playing Phaedra drops to her knees in front of him and simulates fellatio. When she has finished, Hippolytus snottily asks again what she is giving him for his birthday. Then, as an even crueler afterthought, he blithely suggests she see a doctor because he has gonorrhea.

This cheery beginning is followed by scenes of suicide, bloodletting, mental illness, and other physical and emotional grimness. A priest kneels beside Hippolytus to pray at one point and, failing to coax contrition from him, slides over a little and reprises the fellatio scene. But alongside all this darkness, there is more — acrobatic choreography involving all 18 students and, improbable as it may seem, a great deal of humor. And it all somehow hangs together as an engrossing whole.

That the audience that day admired the performance should come as no surprise. Woodruff and the students were very much preaching to the choir. The mission of Brustein's various repertory companies — he launched the Yale Repertory Theatre while serving as dean of that university's drama school in 1966, then brought Orchard and other of its members with him to Cambridge after being fired by Yale's then-president Bart Giamatti — has always been boundary pushing and experimentation. “We intend to indulge our penchant for experiment,” he told the incoming class of Yale School of Drama students way back in 1970, “even at the risk of occasionally alienating our audience.”

Afraid to take chances and offend people Brustein and company were not, and in just the second season of the A.R.T. a production came along that helped set the tone for what would go on in the years to follow — director Lee Breuer's whipsaw-paced, up-to-the-moment interpretation of Frank Wedekind's Lulu, in which the title character became a punk rocker and Jack the Ripper was made to resemble Son of Sam. “You could see entire rows of subscribers storming out,” recalls Derrah, who joined Brustein's new company that year. Newsweek's Jack Kroll loved it. “The most inventive and exciting production I've seen this year,” he wrote. “This high-voltage exchange of energy between audience and play is exactly what live contemporary theater is all about.” Though roughly half of the theater's initial subscribers cut and ran over Lulu, Kroll's review helped the A.R.T. begin replacing the defectors with an audience more favorably disposed toward theatrical risk-taking.

The A.R.T.'s next major controversy involved a fracas with Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett, who bitterly objected to its 1984 production of Endgame. Beckett had heard reports that black actors had been cast in two lead roles, that Philip Glass had contributed an overture, and that the play was now set in a postapocalypse subway station. Furious, he demanded the production be shut down. Brustein held his ground. In the end, the production went on with a message from Beckett inserted in the program. “The American Repertory Theatre production, which dismisses my directions,” it said, “is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn't fail to be disgusted by this.”

This month, Brustein departs on yet another controversy. He discarded big-name comedy writer Larry Gelbart's reworking of Aristophanes's Lysistrata as too Broadway and took over writing the adaptation himself. That Woodruff might occasionally provoke controversy obviously isn't going to bother a man like Brustein. But that's not the only thing that got him hired.

“There were a number of things about [Woodruff] I liked very much,” says Brustein. “First of all, he's a crackerjack director — a genuine artist. His work has an intensity and an integrity to it, and a visionary quality, that's very important in doing a piece. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for an artistic director, he acknowledges, recognizes, and reinforces the work of other people. And you can't be an artistic director without doing that, if you're just in it to serve yourself.”

Woodruff is also more genial than his downtown-hipster persona and often dark, discomforting stage productions might suggest. Dressed in the same all-black getup of a few days earlier, he takes a seat at an upstairs conference table in the A.R.T.'s Loeb Drama Center headquarters and retraces how he got here. A Brooklyn native, Woodruff graduated from the University at Buffalo magna cum laude with a degree in political science. He taught high school in Manhattan for three years in exchange for a draft deferment that kept him out of Vietnam, and found himself using theater techniques “as a pedagogical tool.” That got him taking theater courses at City College at night, and when his teaching commitment was up, he moved to San Francisco, where he earned a master's degree in theater from San Francisco State and cofounded both the Eureka Theatre and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

He also hooked up there with Sam Shepard, who had returned stateside from London and was then resident playwright at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. The two men met over a pool table and beers one day in 1976, and during the next several years Woodruff would direct the premieres of three of Shepard's finest plays — Curse of the Starving Class in New York and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child in San Francisco, both in 1978, and, in 1980, True West.

The collaboration started inauspiciously. “I asked Sam if he had any plays that were sitting in a drawer,” recalls Woodruff, “and he had this little opera piece. It was called The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife. The title was slightly longer than the piece was. He really liked what we did. And then when Joseph Papp was looking for a director for Curse of the Starving Class in New York, during the Shakespeare Festival in '78, Sam said, 'Let this guy do it.' They flew me to New York, and so careers are made.”

Two years later, Papp tapped Woodruff again for a New York production of True West at the Public Theater. It was here that Woodruff got his first real taste of national notoriety. The production went quickly to hell, and Shepard and Papp feuded openly over it in the New York Times.

“It was a fabulously horrible moment in my career,” acknowledges Woodruff, laughing about it now. “I cast Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle, and it was just an extremely difficult rehearsal period. Their theatrical chops were really pushed, really beyond maybe what they had done before, and it became nightmarish. I mean, it happens in the theater. Things just don't work out. Joe at that time often had closed down productions before opening, and he'd just done that with a David Rabe play. And I'd suggested [doing the same with True West], and he said, 'No, we're going to go ahead with this.' And I said, 'Well, it's just going to be a shadow of what it could be.' . . . So Sam took his name off it; I quit; Joe came in, repainted the set — I think that was his contribution; and I don't think my name ever got off it in terms of being the director of record. But it began a big brouhaha.”

Not long thereafter, Shepard decided he wanted to direct his own plays, and Woodruff found himself between jobs. He decided to use his free time for a cross-country train trip and job hunt. He went from San Diego to Seattle and then through the Midwest, stopping at 30 or 40 theaters looking for work and ending up finding it in Chicago. Gregory Mosher, artistic director at the Goodman Theatre, had the strange notion of casting the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a lunatic five-man juggling act, in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Mosher asked if Woodruff wanted to direct it. So Woodruff flew to Oregon to meet the Karamazovs, who were then hanging out at Ken Kesey's farm.

“'You're going to direct us?'” Woodruff says they asked him, skeptically. “And I said,'You're going to do Shakespeare?'”

Woodruff did direct them in Comedy of Errors, both in Chicago and at Lincoln Center. Other Flying Karamazov Brothers collaborations followed: The Three Musketeers (renamed The Three Moscowteers and set in Russia), Room Service, Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, and Le Petomane.

“Do you know who Le Petomane was?” Woodruff asks. “Le Petomane was, in fin-de-siècle Paris, the highest-paid performer in all of France. He worked at the Moulin Rouge. His act was that he farted. He could do impersonations. He could actually stick a tube, uh, in his behind, put a flute out the other end, and play a song with it. Kings would come from all over Europe to see this act. And so we did this piece based on his life.”

But Woodruff was also taking on darker, more serious projects, and in 1993 one of them provoked a second significant scandal. His production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, laden with violence and nudity, caused its own spree of walkouts and helped land the theater's then-new artistic director, Carey Perloff, in hot water.

Richard II had walkouts, Woodruff allows, “but nothing compared to The Duchess of Malfi.” He laughs loudly. “It made the city seem very parochial to me.”

“Americans are so puritanical about sex anyway,” Woodruff adds. “It's kind of alarming. It's all about tits and ass in advertising, but if you really examine it, or if you put a woman on the stage who doesn't look like she's 21 years old and nubile, and she's naked, and something else happens, they go . . . ” He feigns being horrified.

Then again, aside from a few condemnatory lines of Bolingbroke's, as he dispatches Bushy and Greene, there is little in Shakespeare's text to make anyone think King Richard II was gay. Shakespeare had been inspired by his rival Christopher Marlowe's earlier Edward II, however, in which Edward's homosexual love for Gaveston is overt. And Woodruff himself had been hankering to stage Edward II ever since stumbling onto the work of multidimensional artist David Wojnarowicz, who chronicled the subterranean gay scene centered around New York's Chelsea piers. He decided to “car crash” his Edward II research into Richard II.

“Actually, I encountered David's work on its own,” says Woodruff. “He was a photographer. He was a poet. He was a video artist. He was a novelist. And he lived the life of lower Manhattan, defined it over two decades, a certain stratum of that life. And so his life was rich as an artist. So these are the people you want to draw from. And also, I live there. So this is fabulous, this is my home. So it's an archeology of your life, too. That's it. And so then you just carry around this information, this store of collected imagery that you encounter in wandering around the planet.”

“You tend to be darker,” it is pointed out.

“Yeah, I know. Well . . . ”

He waves his arms downward and shrugs, indicating his all-black attire. The pink backdrop in Richard II was actually Derrah's idea, he says.

“Tommy said, 'I'm tired of all these gray and black Shakespeares,'” recalls Woodruff. “I said, 'Okay, there's the gauntlet.' I mean, it's just those kind of things — if you just take off on that, then something else opens up.

“There's a phrase that Jean-Luc Godard used, which is, 'Distant and right.' And that's the important thing about the wedding of image and text. It has to have distance, and it has to be the right distance. And the right image. Both. And either it is or it isn't.”

Here Woodruff becomes animated, pressing his hands together and moving them from one side of the table to the other to illustrate his point. “If it's too far away, there's no resonance between the image and what you're making. The viewer can't make the connection. If it's too close, it won't be interesting. But if it's done right, it'll work for the audience. It'll resonate for them. And I think that's what you're trying to get.

“Chuck Mee would always say, 'You need to give enough places where they're connected to what you're making, then they'll trust you in terms of drifting, and moving away from that point.' They say, 'Oh, I recognize that. I'm with you. Thanks very much for that.' And sometimes you don't have enough points, and then they go, 'I don't know what's going on.'”

Does Woodruff think that's what happened with his Richard II?

“I don't know. I can't figure it out. I love the work that Tommy and Bill [Camp, who played Bolingbroke] did so much, and for me, I don't know that [an audience is] going to see a lot better, in terms of those two roles. . . . These guys — this was the real deal here.”

Woodruff was particularly partial to the performance's final act, following Richard's murder in prison. The two principal actors end the play lying on top of each other and logrolling together in a dreamlike dance. “The last gesture of physicality and tenderness and holding him and caressing him, [Bolingbroke] taking care of the dead body,” he says, “I thought that brought it back. I thought that was beautiful. I loved that. I think it was fabulously excessive.”

The Globe's theater critic wasn't so sure. “The final image, in which Henry lies with the dead body of the king, is quite affecting,” Ed Siegel wrote. “But as they endlessly roll around the stage together, the poetry becomes parody. Like much in this production, Woodruff undermines a fine idea by taking it a step too far.”

Woodruff begs to differ. “I think things are interesting when they're too short or too long,” he counters. “When they're 'right,' it's like . . . ” He breaks off and indicates “ho-hum” with another shrug of his shoulders. “I just thought that the connection between those two men called for that much time. I don't know what else the audience had to do. It went on an extra 30 seconds. Where are they going? They're just going to get their cars. They could watch these two men in a beautiful physical dance for another 30 seconds. Then you remember longer. It's burned much brighter.”

So, then, Back to the larger question. What can Boston theatergoers expect under Woodruff's reign as artistic director?

He already has plans. “We'll be investigating much more music theater than Bob did,” he says. He also plans more collaborations with “great European directors — maybe outside the Russian bloc, which I think he's explored a lot. And then from there working with South American directors, Asian directors, and composers. We're trying to make a festival of events every year, where there's a great sense of the integrity of each individual piece that we're making.”

Woodruff intends to direct no more than one or two productions a year himself. “I find the thing that's interesting about the job is [that] it requires an unbelievable amount of generosity,” he says. “I don't think it's important that I direct.”

His own artistic satisfaction, he says, is secondary to keeping that festival of events fresh, challenging, and of the highest possible quality. “If anybody that comes into this building — the people who work in this building, and the audiences that come — if they feel good about what's going on, then it's going to work out.”

And if certain audience members don't feel good about it, maybe it will still work out. That's how the actor who played Woodruff's king sees it, anyway. A.R.T. veteran Tommy Derrah envisions a potential upside to the Richard II walkouts, à la the Lulu experience in the company's early days. “Even John Simon — who's an idiot; please put that in there — left at intermission, and then wrote a review about it, saying he laughed his way down the aisle. It never bothered me. Well, that's cool. At least you have a reaction.”

The A.R.T., after all, was created for “people that like to go to the theater to be challenged. It kind of separates the men from the boys.”

Derrah laughs at what he's just said, but he means it. “We don't need live theater if it doesn't create some kind of emotional response,” he says. “You can sit and be passive at a movie or in front of a television set. That's my prejudice. And it's been Bob's, and it will be Robert's.”