Rap, Tap and . . . 'Macbeth'?

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has recently vowed to crack down on jaywalking New Yorkers, but it's unlikely the law could ever catch up with George C. Wolfe, the willful, energetic and restless producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. Roger Rabbit himself couldn't better navigate the cars speeding down Lafayette Street, the wide boulevard in front of the bustling downtown theater complex Wolfe has headed since 1993.

"I don't care how thick traffic is, I can get across the street, zip, zip, zip, and not get hit," the voluble director says later, reclining on a leather couch in his funky, cluttered office. "And that's the way I'm used to functioning. But try doing that with 100 people."

The traffic-dodging metaphor--in response to how Wolfe's damn-the-torpedoes style clashes with managing such an enormously complex institution as the Public Theater--is well chosen. Five years after accepting the mantle of the late Joseph Papp--after an brief and stormy 18-month tenure in the role by JoAnne Akalaitis--Wolfe has finally recast in his image an institution that many consider one of the most potent theatrical forces in the country. He claims he has done so by making sure that the Public's stages reflect the diverse concerns and frenetic energies of the multicultural community he considers his constituency. He fondly speaks of the "cultural collisions" he is effecting among Village gays and uptown blacks, young Asians from Queens and elderly Jews, affluent Upper East Side whites and barrio Latinos.

"George likes to work in chaos, positive chaos," says Ken Lerer, chairman of the Public's board. "The more things he has to do, the better he is."

Right now, there are also quite a few collisions going on inside the Public. In fact, for the interview, the director has snatched an hour out of his busy schedule dominated by rehearsals for "Macbeth," a new production starring Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett opening at the theater on March 15. The show is the high-profile moment of a spring season that also includes the American premiere of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's London hit "The Cripple of Inishmaan" and "Everybody's Ruby," a new play by Thulani Davis, the African American playwright and librettist for "Amistad," the opera Wolfe directed at the Chicago Lyric Opera in the fall. (A recent plan to produce Wolfe's revival of Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town," which played in the summer at the Delacorte in Central Park on Broadway, has been postponed to fall.)

Yet despite all the current activity at 425 Lafayette, it is the road tour of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" that represents one of the boldest new directions for the Public. The Tony-winning Broadway smash about the African American experience told through a kinetic fusion of tap and rap began its national tour in September in Detroit and opens at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre on March 11.

This is the Public's first time producing and financing a national tour on its own, an unprecedented move that when first raised caused considerable concern among many of the board members of the nonprofit theater. Fears well-founded, according to Manny Kladitis, a veteran producer. "Frankly I can see where it was risky, especially for a nonprofit theater, which is not supposed to take big risks."

Wolfe points out, however, that similar fears were voiced in 1996, when Wolfe pressed his board to move from the Public to Broadway the tap-rap musical he'd created in collaboration with Savion Glover--its original star and choreographer. "I was told by many theater professionals that it would never run," he says of the show, which continues to draw 80% attendance.

"A musical with an all-black cast and some edge? And three years later, ha, ha, ha, we've made a lot of money, thank you very much." Indeed, the Broadway run has earned a profit of nearly $3 million dollars, which was reinvested in the road company.

With the bargaining chip of having scored big with "Noise/Funk" on Broadway, Wolfe says he articulated his "passion and vision" to the board, arguing that if the Public produced the tour, they could then dictate the terms of the marketing. He explained that he wanted to maintain control of the show because he'd felt "badly burned" when "Jelly's Last Jam," which he'd directed both on Broadway and for the road, was presented by "clueless" promoters and producers who insisted on "categorizing" the production as a black show for black audiences. That, he said, was not going to happen to "Noise/Funk."

"The show is about the rhythms of America; it's told from a specifically African American point of view, but given the cultural complexity of who we are and what we are, if I tell my story, it's going to end up being yours," Wolfe says of the explosively percussive historical pageant, which begins on slave ships and moves through the stirrings of ragtime and jazz in the industrialized urban centers to the black caricatures of Hollywood and, finally, to a scene in which four well-dressed black men attempt, and fail, to flag down a New York taxi.

Wolfe says he convinced the board to pony up the money "after a lot of 'Ohmigod-what-are-we getting-intos,' which is what boards are supposed to do"--by recalling the original vision and agenda of the Public, which was designed to reach out to communities that have not often had the incentive to go to theater.

This line of argument is consistent with all that Wolfe has tried to accomplish at the Public. An artistic visionary, Wolfe is also deeply committed to the social cause of connecting with community.

Indeed, one of the first things he did, after arriving at the Public in 1993, was to establish a community affairs department whose main objective is to bring in new audiences unused to going to theater, particularly inner-city children.

Public board chairman Ken Lerer recalls that producing the show on the road was an even tougher decision than the move to Broadway. "We had many substantive discussions and ultimately we decided to reinvest the profits from the Broadway production [in the touring production]. We assumed that we would not make money on the road, but that if we could expose theatergoers outside of New York to a piece like "Noise/Funk" it would be well worth the investment."

The gamble has paid off. Tour organizers have established mini community-affairs departments in every city the tour has visited, allowing "Noise/Funk" to attract both a diverse audience and healthy box-office receipts. (The show grossed an impressive $807,000 on a recent week in Seattle.)

Critical response also has been strong: Variety critic Chris Jones, for one, noted that the show has the ability to appeal equally to blacks and whites, as well as give presenters the opportunity to appeal "to audiences far younger than their graying subscribers." Yet, he added, "the episodic 'Noise/Funk' is not likely to shock subscribers by veering from the traditional book musical conventions."

Reviews have also noted that the absence of the charismatic Glover, who won a Tony for his original choreography and was nominated for another as leading performer, has not had the deleterious effect on the production many thought it might. Praise has been heaped on Derick K. Grant, who now leads the cast of eight men and one woman. In fact, even on Broadway Glover's departure last spring barely made a dent in the musical's healthy grosses.

"Savion is an astounding artist," says Wolfe, who began developing the show with Glover in workshops at the Public in the spring of 1995, in the course of which they highlighted Glover as the heir to a black dance tradition.

"The real challenge has always been to sustain the raw, combustible energy, something so instinctive and passionate, that makes this show happen, or not, it's the performers being in the moment that makes the difference--or not."

Part of the concept is that the cast must be predominantly youthful. The present touring ensemble ranges in age from 15 to 27. "You cast the show with anybody older and it's just not the same thing." Wolfe notes wryly that the relative youth of the nearly all-male cast--not to mention the testosterone level--has added "truant officer," "big brother" and "terrorist" to his list of duties. Indeed, during the Broadway run, numerous reports leaked out of juvenile high-jinks resulting in a number of backstage props being trashed; Glover himself, now 25, was detained on marijuana charges at one point.

"When I was 21, I was testing muscles, screwing up, learning about life, which is what you're supposed to be doing at that age, the only difference is, I was poor and they have money," says Wolfe. "You can't access the show's raw, exhilarating energy without accessing some of the foolishness that comes from being young. I feel like a parent: 'They'll grow out of this.' And I've seen them do that, in good and bad ways."

Wolfe is also calibrating testosterone levels for his new production of "Macbeth," which features Baldwin, no slouch in the macho department.

The director says Baldwin approached him about doing a production of Shakespeare's tragedy of blind ambition, and that he welcomed the opportunity to invite both the actor and Bassett back to renew their commitment to the Public, where both had worked early in their respective careers. As the first Shakespearean production to be done since the Shakespeare Festival completed its 10-year task of staging the entire canon, Wolfe says he feels this production sends a signal that his theater's primary aim continues to be to "attract the most exciting artists in America to do classical work here."

Wolfe coaxed Bassett back to the stage after a long absence (she was a featured actor in August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in 1988). And while she needed some time to reacclimatize, he says "there is this bravery she has, she'll dive into any choice. She has an incredible muscularity as a stage actress, a sensuality and vulnerability. A fierce intelligence, too. It's exciting to find all these qualities in one person."

Late last fall, rumors circulated that the production, given its star power, should be for Broadway, to which Wolfe responds that the Public's 200-seat Martinson Hall offers a "hyper-intimacy I wanted to play around with" that would be lost by going to a large house uptown. "I just thought it was a healthier way to start the production."

In staying downtown, Wolfe passed up not only a Broadway rate for directing for himself, but also potential revenue for the theater. It's something he believes the theater can afford. "This institution is probably healthier financially than it's ever been in its life," Wolfe claims.

Indeed, according to Margaret Lioi, a Public business official, Wolfe initiated a long-range financial plan in 1993 to force the institution to balance its books. Apparently it has worked. "For the fiscal years 1996 and 1997 we not only balanced our budget, but ended up with a surplus of $300,000 for each year. That's unprecedented."

Should "Macbeth" go uptown, it will be Wolfe's fourth transfer of a Public Theater production--previous efforts include "Noise/Funk," the 1995 production of "The Tempest" starring Patrick Stewart, which was a hit, and Anna Deavere Smith's 1994 production of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which flopped uptown. According to Wolfe, his revival of "On the Town," which received mixed notices this summer at the Delacorte, will be the first production of the 1997-98 Broadway season in the fall. That show, too, had its share of controversy, first when choreographer Eliot Feld volunteered to bow out of the project after his dances were severely criticized. Christopher D'Amboise was announced as his replacement, but he too was soon gone, after citing "artistic differences" with Wolfe. Rather than scurry about for a new choreographer, the transfer to Broadway was postponed.

Asked how ruthless he is prepared to be in making the necessary changes, Wolfe smiles. "I wouldn't call it ruthless, but I learned very early on that the first responsibility is to the work," he responds.

There have been challenges. A group of commercial Broadway producers who had provided enhancement money for the Central Park production of "On the Town" grew alarmed as the move to Broadway became more and more expensive, particularly after the show received mixed notices. When they asked to renegotiate their deal with the Public, Wolfe convinced his board to finance the entire $5 million capitalization for Broadway, despite some reluctance reportedly among board members afraid to take on the full risk.

"When you're dealing with the Public, it's their production and you have no ability to effectively make changes you feel may be necessary," said one of the producers, who asked to remain anonymous. "George was increasing the budget every two seconds and nobody said 'No.' We were prepared to go forward, but quietly relieved when we didn't."

Said Lerer: "George knows what he likes and his record to date is as good as anybody's, and that make the board's job easier."

What sort of chips Wolfe may bring to board meetings to get his way is not known, but rumors have been floating for years that he has been on the brink of resigning his position. The names of potential successors, including Michael Greif, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse and Jim Nicola of the New York Theater Workshop, both of whom collaborated on creating "Rent," have also been floated. But as Wolfe's friend and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner has said, "George doesn't need the Public, but the Public very, very much needs George." The rumors have heated up again partly due to the fact that Wolfe is not in good health. While directing "On the Town" in the summer, the director was on dialysis for a kidney problem. Later this month, he will undergo a kidney transplant with his brother as a donor.

"It's been a rather startling process," Wolfe says with characteristic aplomb. "I have a strong will and so much energy that it's been rather fascinating for me to actually have to obey the dictates of my body. It's like it's suddenly this demanding lover who says, 'If you don't start paying attention to me, I'm going to leave you.' Ohmigod, that's a very difficult thing to adjust to."

About his future at the Public, Wolfe remains cryptic--"People appear to know more about my life than I do, so let them tell me. I'm here and I'm working," he says. However, he expresses a longing to take a break from his exhaustive schedule of directing projects on top of running an exceedingly demanding and complicated institution.

In fact, he says that one of the reasons he was attracted to directing "Macbeth" was because, on one level, the play is about the damage that can occur when the balance between action and reflection is out of whack, indicating that it is a problem with particular personal resonance for him.

"The goal, I think, is to have these masculine and feminine energies--masculine being to act, feminine being to reflect--in some kind of proper balance," he says. I've been working back to back for so long, 'Jelly's Last Jam,' 'Angels in America,' then 'Angels' and 'Twilight,' then bringing 'Noise/Funk' and 'The Tempest' to Broadway in the same year, and then a whole lot of personal stuff, in between, that I just want to read a book just to read a book. I'm not sure how much longer I can be directing at this pace."

Falling into the cadence of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," his frame stretched out on the office couch, Wolfe continues melodramatically, "I used to be playwright once, you know--Max! Max!," referring to the mid-'80s when he blazed onto the scene as the brazen author of such works as "The Colored Museum" and "Spunk."

In fact, he offered that he had begun working on a couple of projects that now lay neglected in the office of his new Grammercy Park townhouse, which once belonged to New York City Ballet co-founder Lincoln Kirstein. In addition to plays, one of a semi-autobiographical nature, he is also writing screenplays, though he doesn't imagine ever directing film, unless he's offered an "Orson Welles-type" deal. "I'm too much of a control freak to give up the final edit," he says. "I'm spoiled by the freedom of theater."

Wolfe's wistful dream of returning to writing, perhaps made more manifest by his body's rebellion, could well lead him to a totally new chapter in this career. "I've had an exhilarating six years of output, output, output," he says, appearing to mean what he says completely. "But you can't live like that. I'm interested in moving into a much more reflective state. At least, that's my romance."

* "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., opening March 11, 8 p.m. Regular schedule: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Also Sunday evenings, 7:30 p.m., except April 26; Thursday matinees, 2 p.m. on March 26, April 9, April 23. April 26, 2 p.m. only. Ends April 26. $15-$65. (213) 628-2772.

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