Staying True to Form

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

For many people, the Enlightenment looms as a distant and hazy moment in the development of Western culture, the stuff of a forgotten history lesson at best. But to opera and theater director Stephen Wadsworth, it's a period whose uncertainties mirror our own.

After the intellectual advances of the 17th century, the Age of Reason was a time when philosophy was being reshaped along rationalist lines, promoting new social, political and scientific ideals.

"Basically, the 18th century is the century that delivered modern democracy onto the doorstep of this century," says the vivacious director, his animated gestures conveying a passion for the topic, during a recent rehearsal break.

"It's the early Enlightenment, which is about imminent change," Wadsworth says. "It's about the attempt to reorder, and it was a tremendous period of gathering knowledge."

It was also a fertile epoch for arts and letters.

"There's something about the art of this period, in the first half of the century, when these ideas were just growing," says the director, who is known for his staging, adaptation and translation of works by French and Italian artists of the early 18th century. "Suddenly lots of people were sharing these ideas, and the century became a runaway train."

The Santa Fe, N.M.-based Wadsworth, 43, whose staging of Handel's "Xerxes" was seen at L.A. Music Center Opera in 1994, is directing his own adaptation of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's 1723 comedy "Changes of Heart," opening Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum. The play's commedia dell'arte characters and others tell the story of a prince who is in love with a country lass who is, in turn, smitten with the town clown.

If the style seems foreign, the play's concerns are not.

"Marivaux was fascinated by the phenomenon of change," Wadsworth says. "He chose to write about love and intrigues of the heart, but what [his plays] are really about is big shifts, nowhere more screamingly so than in this play.

"Every single heart has a humongous shift which is so painful and so real," he continues. "And we've all been there."

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As if the task of translation and adaptation weren't enough, directors who tackle playwrights such as Marivaux must also navigate the gap between the play's culture and that of the present. And that's no mean feat--particularly given that most contemporary audiences are unschooled in the whys and wherefores of 18th century mores.

"For a lot of people, style and period convention are a barrier to the content of the play, whatever it is," Wadsworth says. "When you play style, whatever the style is, there has to be a fundamental understanding that style and content are the same thing."

Wadsworth is, in fact, one of only a very few American directors known for their success with period style.

"We think of period as being phony, but that's what bad period acting and directing is," says Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where Wadsworth has directed a play each year since 1992. "He brings to life the time.

"It's a perfect balance between style that has an exquisite profile to it, so that you get the clothes and manners of the time and American Method-style acting," she says. "He finds extraordinary tragedy in comedy, and extraordinary comedy in tragedy. You really care about these [characters]: They're exquisite vessels of feeling."

The key, apparently, is working with, rather than against, the text.

"You have to decode it but not deconstruct it," Wadsworth says. "There're too many postmodern takes on classic plays. Not that they're not valid or interesting--or that the tension between our sensibility and the original can't be productive for an audience. But usually they are reductive in some way."

The alternative approach may be more difficult, but there's a payoff.

"What I deeply need to do is to rediscover a style for these plays," Wadsworth says. "What I've worked on is trying to understand the language of gesture, verbal language, rhythm, the way bodies are disposed in relation to one another onstage, the pictures, the emotional style--all the things which make up a style."

Style is a matter of uncovering what is inherent in the text, as well as blending that with modern sensibilities.

"We have worked on distilling a style from the things that are in the play--the commedia tradition, the French tradition, our own tradition of emotional honesty in this country--so that the realism of the play is heightened," he says.

"It's very much on the terms of how we perceive that the piece was [done], how and why it came about and who it was for. But it's also on our terms as Americans."

If that sounds like a delicate balance to strike, it is.

"You've got to do your homework, or you have to have lived your homework, which is sort of what I did," Wadsworth says. "I spent a lot of time around 18th century art, a lot of time around the European artistic and cultural tradition, which is my heritage."

In fact, he began living that homework at a surprisingly early age. Wadsworth, who was raised just an hour north of New York City, was taken on his first trip to the opera when he was 4.

His parents chose "Don Giovanni" to give their young son his first taste of what would become a lifelong love. Fortunately, they thought to lay some groundwork first.

"On Sunday, when we'd be eating pancakes, they'd play the record and tell the story. There's some great tunes in that opera, and we were very open to it," he recalls, referring to himself and his brother. Wadsworth is the middle child of three.

So when it came to actually seeing the production, Wadsworth had some clue as to what to make of it: "We liked it just on a gut level of spectacle. We loved watching this fabulous show--with blue lights for the statue, red lights for the flames. It was a good old-fashioned exciting experience for a kid."

So exciting that he never forgot it.

"I kept going back and reading things about opera, and it just became my sort of hobby when I was a kid," he says. "And my parents did nothing to hinder, only to help, this fascination."

That may account for why Wadsworth ultimately chose to pursue opera professionally.

"There's something about the passionate release and the study of passions that opera can be," he says. "Through my identification with those characters, and ultimately my working with them, I developed a way to work through a lot of the things I had seen and experienced."

Wadsworth went on to attend Harvard, where he majored in Italian literature. There he also pursued acting, directing and singing, all of which were interests he had first discovered in high school.

Yet after two years of college, Wadsworth began to chafe at the confines of the ivory tower. He left, intent on pursuing his musical interests.

"I didn't know how, but I knew that I would be going into opera," he says.

Wadsworth moved to New York and took voice lessons.

"I had a good voice with a distinctive sound," he says. "[But] it ended up not going anywhere. I wanted to get on with my life."

Around the same time, he also began working as a writer and editor at Opera News and elsewhere. Wadsworth also co-taught an opera workshop, which led to some other projects as well.

"At that point, I was trying to do different things, spreading my wings a bit, because I was beginning to realize that I wasn't going to be a singer," he says.

One venture in particular was pivotal in terms of pointing Wadsworth toward his future.

"We [staged] an evening of scenes in some hotel, in a rented space," he says. "There were a lot of people who came to see it because I was working at Opera News."

Those people encouraged Wadsworth to pursue directing, although he didn't immediately do so. Instead, he continued as a journalist for "five intensive years," before abandoning the field.

The turning point was triggered by a personal tragedy.

"I had a sister who died in 1980, and that's when all of the trying this, trying that sort of living [came to an end]," he says. "Suddenly I went, 'OK, it's time to commit, to become.' Within six months, I had started teaching acting to singers and I had started the conversation with Leonard Bernstein about writing a music theater piece, which ultimately came to fruition."

In 1983, Wadsworth--who had earlier written a scenario for Bernstein's 1952 opera "Trouble in Tahiti"--collaborated with the late composer on the opera "A Quiet Place."

And these projects pointed the way toward the next phase of his career.

"Within a couple of years after that I was directing," Wadsworth says. "Journalism was gone, and I was firmly back on the old side of the footlights, working on whatever it is that my career is now."

Since then, he has worked steadily, chalking up his rapid ascent to good timing, among other things.

"I had great fortune," says Wadsworth, who staged a largely unknown Monteverdi opera at the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee in 1983, then went on to become its artistic director from 1984 to 1989. "It was the right time. It worked. And it happened."

Then again, the journalism connections didn't hurt: "Again, it was a production that was seen by people in the business. Instantly, because certain people saw it and everybody was talking about it, I had an agent knocking on my door and offers."

Handel's "Xerxes" is one of the works that Wadsworth first staged during his Skylight years. In 1993, he staged the opera again for the Santa Fe Opera, followed by the L.A. Opera production in 1994.

"If 'Xerxes' deserves to be revived in the cold light of 1994, it certainly deserves tender, loving, enlightened care," wrote then-Times music critic Martin Bernheimer of the L.A. Opera staging. "That, thank goodness . . . is what it got here."

This year, Wadsworth brought "Xerxes" to Boston. It's also set for future productions in Seattle, New York and Toronto. "So it's got legs, this opera," he says. "It lands on an audience. They get it, and they're touched by it."

Not content even with such a busy opera schedule, though, Wadsworth has also been working in theater for the last four years.

It began in 1992, when Mann invited Wadsworth to stage Marivaux's "Triumph of Love" at the McCarter.

"I really felt that having done opera for 10 years, I was ready," Wadsworth says. "I was tempted to do a play several times, but I didn't want to do it until I felt like I could do something really beautiful and complete."

In 1994, he returned to the McCarter to stage "Changes of Heart," which he also staged for Berkeley Rep earlier this year. And somewhere along the way, Wadsworth developed a reputation as an expert on the somewhat unknown writer.

Although Marivaux's "The Game of Love and Chance" was given a small production at the Taper, Too in 1987, Mann suggests that it was Wadsworth's 1992 staging of "The Triumph of Love" that set off the current surge of interest in the playwright. Mann, who first suggested the writer to Wadsworth, has invited him to stage "The Game of Love and Chance" at her theater next season.

Before 1992, Wadsworth had seen a couple of productions of Marivaux plays in Europe. But he had felt something was missing:

"They stressed the dark side of Marivaux, the perversity, cruelty, coldness. The material does have this strain of darkness in it, and that's one of the reasons it's fascinating. So it wasn't that they were seeing something that wasn't there. It's just that they were stressing it at the expense of the other qualities that are in the plays, which include comedy. I instinctively felt there was more to the picture."

Wadsworth's instincts were, as it turns out, accurate.

"[Marivaux] wrote for a bunch of Italian comedians, this company in Paris who were just recently performing in French," he says, referring to the Comedie Italienne of Paris. "They were a commedia troupe, and their tradition was of improvisation, of nonliterary theater.

"Here they were in Paris, which has a highly literary tradition and a very not-improvisational feeling about it. Marivaux was drawn to the downtown feeling of these comedians and wrote many of his greatest plays for them.

"These plays were true to the tradition of the serious French plays in that there was a tremendous manipulation of language and the use of language to describe inner action, but they also traded on the Italians' more physical style."

The particular mix of ingredients is typical of the intellectual and creative cross-pollination that was going on during the Enlightenment. And it's partly this eclecticism that Wadsworth finds so appealing.

"Marivaux and Handel were writing at the same time, exactly the same years, right across the Channel from one another," the director marvels.

"Who knows why, but these [works] attract me like a moth to a fire."

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"Changes of Heart," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Opens Thursday and continues through Sept. 1. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. $28-$35.50. (213) 628-2772.

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