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Hartford Stage's Darko Tresnjak seals his passion for risk with 'Kiss Me, Kate'

Darko Tresnjak arrived in this country from the former Yugoslavia at age 10, during the many 1976 bicentennial celebrations. He and his mother, Maria, saw the festivities and fireworks first on the mall in Washington, D.C., and then pretty much every place they stopped on a cross-country trip to Disneyland that summer.

"There were fireworks everywhere," says Tresnjak, a busy theater director, nearly four decades later. "I thought to myself, 'These people really know how to party.'"

That festive spirit infects two of Tresnjak's recent productions: "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," which won four Tony Awards in 2014, including best musical and director, and a revival of the 1948 Cole Porter musical "Kiss Me, Kate," a co-production between the Hartford Stage, where Tresnjak has been artistic director since 2011, and San Diego's Old Globe.

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When the revival opened in Hartford, Conn. — where "Gentleman's Guide" had also been developed — on May 30, New York Times reviewer Sylviane Gold called the show a "rambunctious" conflation of Shakespeare and Cole Porter: "People and projectiles fill the air, a large blue bird bites the dust, feathers fly and sensitive body parts are slapped, kneed, kicked and jabbed in the name of love," Gold wrote.

The show opens July 9 at the Old Globe, where Tresnjak was co-artistic director from 2004 to '09.

For the 49-year-old director, the appeal of "Kiss Me, Kate," was Cole Porter — his favorite songwriter — and not "Taming of the Shrew." Since graduating from Columbia University in 1998, he has directed 100 productions, mostly plays and operas in regional theaters. Though 25 of them were by Shakespeare, Tresnjak has never done "Taming of the Shrew." He has no desire to.

"'Taming of the Shrew' is designed to give uproarious pleasure over the subjugation of a woman," says Tresnjak. Not so the musical about narcissistic show folk putting on a production of "Shrew."

"In 'Kiss Me, Kate,' she is an equal-opportunity offender," he says. "We made sure that she slugs him 10 times as much as he spanks her."

With a well-placed prop, Tresnjak mischievously added fuel to the combustible relationship between Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) and Fred Graham (Mike McGowan), whose personal animosity bleeds into their roles of Kate and Petruchio.

He asked the prop department of the Old Globe to supply a nude statue of Neptune around which he could stage Lilli/Kate's rendition of "I Hate Men." "She needs to slap the penis," says the director of the abuse she aims at the statue. "Love was not Cole Porter's favorite subject. Sex was. I wanted to see bodies in motion. Comic, sexy, lusty and melodic."

In his program notes, Tresnjak writes that he had been thinking of directing "Kate" since 1990 when he heard "Red, Hot and Blue," a CD of Porter tunes sung by pop stars including Annie Lennox, Sinead O'Connor, David Byrne and k.d. lang, a fundraiser for AIDS research.

"Cole Porter's frank songs, which celebrate sexuality and desire, reached and relaxed a frightened new generation," Tresnjak writes, adding that the songs were as "medicinal" in 1990 as they were in 1948, when written by a composer who had endured a crippling horseback riding accident and suffered a string of flops.

Tresnjak seems in need of solace himself during lunch in mid-June at a midtown Manhattan restaurant. He calls to the waiter for "a strong dose of caffeine," and his boyish good looks seem strained.

In addition to "Kiss Me, Kate" and preparing the national tour of "Gentleman's Guide" — it reaches Los Angeles in March — he is developing two shows for the Hartford's forthcoming season: "Anastasia," a new musical based on the woman claiming to be the Romanov princess, and "Rear Window," a stage adaptation of the 1942 Cornell Woolrich short story that inspired the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film.

But what is really tearing at Tresnjak are his frequent trips to Maryland to visit his 88-year-old mother, who was in critical condition. (She died on June 26.)

When he accepted the Tony for "Gentleman's Guide," he thanked his husband, Joshua Pearson, a costume designer, but he saved his most effusive praise for Maria Tresnjak. He told the audience that she had fought during World War II and had been a sky diver. "My mom literally taught me how to jump out of airplanes," he said at the podium before sending a message of love and thanks in Serbo-Croatian.

"She had the most irreverent sense of humor," Tresnjak says at lunch. "Growing up, I could get away with being very naughty as long as she thought it was creative and funny, not banal."

That held him in good stead once the two arrived in the United States and Tresnjak found that his odd name made him something of an "exotic." His father, an engineer, remained behind in Belgrade, and though he occasionally visited the family, he was not close to his only son.

"We didn't capture each other's imagination, and that's OK," says Tresnjak.

What did capture the director's imagination was theater and dance, from watching MGM musicals on Belgrade television to seeing Washington productions of "West Side Waltz" with Katharine Hepburn, "On Your Toes" with Natalia Makarova and "Ghosts" with Liv Ullmann.

After Swarthmore College, he studied with the Martha Graham Dance Company. In the five years between Swarthmore and Columbia, Tresnjak performed with dance and theater companies in Philadelphia and toured the United States and Japan in puppet theater. These disparate disciplines were all part, he says, of his "Crayola box with as many different shades as possible."

Believing in "range and risk," the prolific director says he loves to apply those colors to as many varied projects as possible. He first gained a reputation for tackling difficult and imperfect classics — what he calls "bruised beauties," like "The Skin of Our Teeth" — so the opportunity to direct "Gentleman's Guide," which marked his Broadway debut, came as a brisk new challenge.

So did the West Coast premiere this year of "The Ghosts of Versailles" at Los Angeles Opera, starring Patti LuPone and Patricia Racette. "I was in heaven working with my two Pattis," he recalls. LuPone is one of the most "fearless" actors, he says.

There's a tendency among directors and actors "… to overanalyze as opposed to just getting up and doing it. Patti is the kind of actor who just plunges in."

As someone who reads crime fiction to relax, Tresnjak is looking forward to "Rear Window," which he says will be "more gritty and less glamorous" than the Hitchcock classic. No Grace Kelly type will be coming to the rescue of the invalid photographer who in playwright Keith Reddin's version is an alcoholic and gets assistance from a young African American who must not only elude the killer but also fend off racist cops.

"It's a stage thriller but oddly resonant and unsettling," says Tresnjak of the production, which premieres this fall at Hartford.

From the noir cityscape of New York, he pivots to the world of "Anastasia," which will open in May. The new musical features a book by Terrence McNally, and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have written 18 new songs to supplement the six they wrote for the 1997 animated film of the same name.

The show was inspired by the real-life story of Anna Anderson, who said she was the youngest daughter of Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra and claimed to have survived the murder of her family in 1918. With the advent of DNA testing, Anderson was proved an impostor in 1991, but Tresnjak says that is irrelevant to their story.

"A fabrication gave birth to a modern romance and what matters is our need to believe in these stories," says Tresnjak, drawing a comparison between "Anastasia" and "The Winter's Tale" and "Pericles," the Shakespearean plays with which he launched his career.

"They feature painful separations across time and space, long voyages, and improbable yet heartbreaking reunions," Tresnjak says. "I suspect that everyone, and especially immigrant children, have a need to believe in stories like these."

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