Amid the sweeping changes at the Grove Shakespeare Festival--which has dropped its associated Grove Theatre Company designation, and has adopted a unified, indoor-outdoor schedule running through December instead of dual, year-round programming--one of the things that remains unchanged is the theatrical collaboration with guest director Jules Aaron.
When the festival launches its 11th annual Shakespeare season Friday with "Romeo and Juliet" under the stars at the 550-seat Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove, it will mark the third consecutive year that Aaron has directed the opening play. Last year, he staged "Richard II" and the year before "Julius Caesar."
"I keep coming back for two reasons," Aaron said in an interview last week. "One, it lets me stay in touch with the greatest playwright in the language, of course. Two--and I can't emphasize this enough--the Grove is such a well-run company and cares so much about what it's doing that I find working here a pleasure, which I can't say often elsewhere."
A wiry artist of seemingly indefatigable energy who favors loud shirts and an earring in his left earlobe, the 46-year-old transplanted New Yorker is among the busiest stage directors in Southern California. For that matter, few directors anywhere in the country can claim to work as often as he does. Over the past 12 months, Aaron has staged 10 productions while also heading the graduate directing program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
That torrid pace has taken him from South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa to the Public Theater in New York, from New Mexico Repertory in Santa Fe and Albuquerque to the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., to name a few of the places.
Moreover, when "Romeo and Juliet" is up and running, it will be Aaron's third production simultaneously on the boards in the greater Los Angeles area. He currently has "A Night at the Catskills," a musical revue at the Las Palmas Theatre, and "Hard Copy," an original musical comedy by Sam Harris at the Coast Playhouse, both in Hollywood.
Though Aaron has built a reputation for staging new and off-beat contemporary plays, having done more than 40 original works by such writers as John Guare, Elizabeth Diggs, Mayo Simon and Richard Strange, he tends to prefer his Shakespeare in period.
"Occasionally, I'll do what I would call 'concept Shakespeare,' where I'll update," he says. "One time at Calarts, I set 'Midsummer Night's Dream' in a San Francisco advertising agency for the first act and a Marin County ashram for the second. That added humor and a certain relevance to the play. But I normally avoid that sort of thing. After all, Shakespeare's plays speak for themselves."
Still, bringing them to life on the stage requires "a theatrical equivalent" to "the emotional stakes of the play," he says. And so he always seeks an emblematic image to convey thematic content. Then, with his designer, he tries to work that image into the physical setting of the production.
Thus, the set for "Romeo and Juliet" consists of a huge sword plunged vertically into a sun-baked Italian street, dividing it in two, because the tragedy is about a pair of teen-age lovers in Verona forced to deal with "the remnants of a feud" between their families (the Capulets and the Montagues), and with their own fatal passion for each other.
"I think it's a stark and vivid way of showing what's going on," said Aaron, adding that a bloody cloth spills over the stage, and the hilt of the sword also serves as a balcony above the street.
Similarly, "Richard II" had a turntable set to evoke the idea of a giant sun dial, so that Richard and Bolingbroke were seen as opponents caught up in the sweep of time and history. Richard's throne also became a coffin, suggesting that death and destruction are implicit in kingship.
In "Julius Caesar," the physical embodiment of a theme about the corruption of overweaning power and the loss of values was more elaborate. The set included a series of dramatic columns and a large statue of Pompeii beneath which the famous oration scene unfolded. A huge map torn off the front of the stage at the opening of the play also framed the action.
"The second act was virtually a deconstruction of the first," Aaron recalled. "The columns were broken down. The map was burnt and became a ground cloth. The statue was decapitated. Ultimately the ghost of the murdered Caesar appears on it."
The two comments on his Shakespeare productions that he most treasures, the director said, are "that they're clear and they keep your attention."
But if Aaron aims for dramatic clarity, his methods have nonetheless been nurtured on the recondite scholarship of a trained intellectual. In fact, his career in the theater began far from the smell of the grease paint.
With a doctorate from New York University in drama criticism and history--his thesis was about "game ritual and the theater of the absurd"--Aaron set out in the late '60s to become a literary gadfly. He began writing for such academic journals as Tulane Drama Review, Performance From Yale and Performing Arts Journal.
At the same time, however, he was living in a loft on New York's lower East Side, where he staged an environmental production of Jean Genet's "Deathwatch." His first effort, it gained him notice in the Village Voice as an experimental theater director. Soon, he was hanging out with Leonard Melfi and staging the work of that quintessentially downtown playwright of the absurd.
Between his Off Off Broadway productions and his work at Yale Repertory, where he directed Chekov's "The Seagull," Aaron managed to squeeze in some co-directing for public television. "My life got so hectic I decided it might be good for me go back to academia," he recalled. That led him to Southern California, where he accepted an invitation from UC Riverside in 1974 to run its new graduate drama program. By 1981, he switched to the faculty at Calarts. In the meantime, he found himself directing again in Los Angeles.
More recently, Aaron has worked in Orange County not only at the Grove (where he also directed "Vikings") but with even greater frequency at South Coast. He has done five Second Stage productions there ("She Also Dances," "Goodbye Freddie," "Life and Limb," "Cloud Nine" and "Marry Me a Little"), as well as three staged readings ("Elaine's Daughter," "American Beef" and "Bang Bang Blues").
"The way my life is nowadays I would make more money just directing," said Aaron, who lives in Silver Lake Hills. "But I enjoy teaching. And I think my work is much stronger because of it. You have to apply what you tell others to do. It keeps you fresh."
Even so, he is about to take a six-month "creative sabbatical" from Calarts to explore TV directing. That will leave him just enough time to put "Catskills" on tour to Las Vegas and Atlantic City after its Hollywood run ends in July and to work with Harris on "Hard Copy" rewrites in August. "We've got New York in mind," Aaron said.
And let's not forget Long Beach. He'll stage the opening play for the newly formed Long Beach Repertory's first four-play season, which will begin either in October or February. The date and the title are still being decided.
Before then, he will take his first vacation in four years--a two-week fling in Italy after "Romeo and Juliet" opens. "Believe it or not," he said, "the one thing I will avoid there completely is the theater."
"Romeo and Juliet" opens Friday at the Festival Amphitheatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. A preview will be offered Thursday. All curtain times are 8:30. The show runs Thursdays to Sundays through July 15. Tickets: $16 to $23 ($10 for the preview). Information: (714) 636-7213.