Director Darko Tresnjak was once introduced to a woman who -- upon hearing that he was originally from Yugoslavia -- exclaimed that he must speak Anglo-Saxon.
Not quite. Tresnjak’s first language is a hyphenate, yes, but it’s actually Serbo-Croatian. Still, the woman’s mistake wasn’t as off-base as it might appear. After all, Tresnjak directs Shakespeare, whose English is 400 years closer to Anglo-Saxon than is today’s.
Tresnjak, 38, has a penchant for the obscure; he prefers directing some of the less familiar Shakespeare plays -- and seldom-seen old plays in general. Most recently, he staged “Antony and Cleopatra” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” for the Old Globe’s ongoing Shakespeare repertory festival in San Diego’s Balboa Park. He’s also the artistic director of the entire festival.
Tresnjak’s work appears to be headed for Los Angeles as well. Until this year, he had directed for eight summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. That festival’s producer, Michael Ritchie, will take over the artistic reins of L.A.'s Center Theatre Group (the Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre and the new Kirk Douglas Theatre) in January and will plan the CTG seasons beginning with 2005-06.
“You’ll see Darko around Los Angeles, believe me,” Ritchie says. In Ritchie’s first year running Williamstown, Tresnjak also debuted there, directing a children’s production “with such invention and confidence and skill that I thought, ‘This is a guy I can support.’ Year by year we increased his responsibilities. He makes me look like a genius.”
Tresnjak’s directing impulses were apparent as early as the summer of 1972, when he organized the neighborhood kids in simulations of the Olympics that were being held in Munich.
He started picking up English when he was 6 years old, learning folk songs from the two American exchange students who stayed with his family in Zemun, across the river from Belgrade. His sister later married an American diplomat who was stationed in Belgrade.
Darko and his mother crossed the Atlantic to join his sister and her husband in the Maryland suburbs of Washington in 1976. The bicentennial celebrations and a trip to Disneyland created “an instant love affair with America,” Tresnjak recalls.
He hasn’t been back to his native land since he was 13. As he grew older, he started receiving letters advising him that he would have to be certified for military service in Yugoslavia.
He took care of that problem by becoming a U.S. citizen shortly after graduating from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “My roommates made me a big American flag cake,” he says. “I remember all these bleeding blueberries and raspberries.”
After receiving a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University, Tresnjak began directing across the country -- although not often in New York, where he says commercial imperatives seldom permit the kind of theater that interests him.
Broadway isn’t especially keen on what Tresnjak calls “bruised beauties,” such as “The Two Noble Kinsmen” (which Shakespeare co-wrote, with John Fletcher), Moliere’s “Amphitryon” or Carlo Gozzi’s “Princess Turandot.” When he’s interviewed by theater companies, he often suggests something obscure, he says -- only to be asked, “Have you ever thought about ‘Wit’? It saddens me. I see less and less risk-taking.”
Another “bruised beauty,” Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” was his introduction to the Old Globe in 2003. Tresnjak professes ignorance of the particular reasons why the Old Globe called on his services. But Old Globe artistic director Jack O’Brien says that Tresnjak “made a profound impression” at Williamstown and also won recommendations from Boston director Nicholas Martin and from actor Richard Easton, an Old Globe regular who has worked with Tresnjak.
Easton found Tresnjak “precise, informed and helpful -- three things Mr. Easton rarely tends to associate with his directors,” O’Brien says, “so I knew I should strike quickly.”
Tresnjak will teach at UC San Diego this coming year (“I think I will have to learn how to drive -- which is petrifying”). And he is already discussing what he hopes will be a chance to improve the Old Globe Shakespeare repertory next summer.
This year three plays -- “Antony and Cleopatra,” “As You Like It” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” -- opened within six days of one another, which was exciting, Tresnjak says, “but I felt like I was working without a safety net.” It might be “more sane” to extend the openings over more time, he adds.
He wishes he could eliminate the ambient noise that afflicts the alfresco Lowell Davies Festival Stage. “If there’s an airplane, the actors have to change their approach on a dime,” he says, “raising the volume but not changing the meaning.”
He’s resigned to the airplanes, but he thinks someone should call off evening events at the nearby zoo. One night, he says, Gloria Gaynor song covers “were so loud that the theater audience could have sung along. I just left; I couldn’t take it.”
He recently left San Diego to spend some time in Williamstown, where his husband, Joshua Pearson, runs the costume shop at the theater festival. They were married in the recent burst of same-sex weddings in Oregon. They had to designate a “bride” on a form and tossed a coin to select who would get the title.
“He’s 6-5 and I’m 5-9,” Tresnjak says, “so I was happy that he was the one who had to carry me across the threshold.”
Old Globe Summer Shakespeare Festival
Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, the Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
Ends: Oct. 3
Price: $19 to $55
Contact: (619) 234-5623