washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Theater > Features

Mining Their Own Business

Theaters Dig Into the Forgotten Past For What They Hope Will Be Gems

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page N01

You say you've never seen a play by Alfred de Musset? Well, neither has Andrew Vorder Bruegge. While the gap may not seem substantial in your cultural education, it's a poignant one in his. Bruegge is an associate professor of theater at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. More to the point, he's a scholar of the drama of Alfred de Musset. He's intrigued by the sophisticated portrayal of female characters in the plays of Alfred de Musset. For heaven's sake, he did his doctoral work on the plays of Alfred de Musset.

But it's a fascination with only a paper trail. "Musset isn't appreciated in the English-speaking world," says Bruegge. Musset, a 19th-century French romanticist, a contemporary of Victor Hugo and discarded lover of the novelist George Sand, remains a mainstay on the stages of France. His poems may still be memorized by schoolchildren from Nantes to Nice, yet his popularity has never made the transfer to these shores.

Jeffrey Carlson and Robert Cuccioli in "Lorenzaccio," receiving a rare American production at the Shakespeare Theatre. (Carol Rosegg -- Shakespeare Theatre)

_____More in Theater_____
'Lorenzaccio' Performance Info
'Intimations for Saxophone' Performance Info
Arts & Living: Theater

Bruegge's drought, however, is suddenly over. Musset's sprawling drama of Florentine intrigue, "Lorenzaccio" -- a work, by the way, that Musset never saw -- is finally being staged by an American company, the Shakespeare Theatre, in a version newly adapted by John Strand and directed by Michael Kahn. Bruegge flew to Washington this past week when performances began, joining hundreds of theatergoers for a maiden voyage with an obscure playwright and an answer to the question that has to be on the minds of more than a few: Has he been obscure for a reason?

Lost plays have a romantic pull for theater people, especially for those in love with the past. Resurrecting a forgotten work is a bit like recovering a gold cigarette case from a sunken ocean liner: Wipe away the barnacles and who knows? You may find something that glitters. Of course there's also the possibility that the thing will simply come apart in your hands. That danger, too, is part of the attraction. And in the case of regional theaters that need to hold on to subscribers, to strike a balance between unorthodox program choices and seat-filling chestnuts, adventurism can come at a price.

"That is the risk," says Gavin Witt, a resident dramaturg at Baltimore's CenterStage. "That it can become inside baseball, that you're circling the wagons and just kind of pleasing yourselves." Or as Kahn put it: "I tell people we're doing 'Lorenzaccio' and their eyes glaze over."

Even so, there appears to be some added momentum these days, certainly among theaters with the wherewithal for research and development, to kick up the dust in the attic of theater history. In some cases, the rummaging around for old gems is becoming nearly as energetic as sniffing around for newly minted ones. This may be partly a reflection of the growing struggle at some theaters with the discovery of new writers. To some degree, that's been supplanted by discovering dead ones. At Arena Stage, for instance, the one "premiere" in its eight-production schedule this season is "Intimations for Saxophone," a 70-year-old drama by journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell (1885-1970) that has never been performed. The play, directed by Anne Bogart, has been reconditioned by Michael Kinghorn, the former senior dramaturg at Arena who assembled a version from nine drafts in the archives of the Library of Congress.

That "Lorenzaccio" and "Intimations for Saxophone" are opening within a week of each other at the region's most prominent subscription theaters is a signal of how important this trend has become. And these are not isolated occurrences. In recent years, the Shakespeare Theatre has brought to its audiences such neglected pieces as Friedrich Schiller's "Don Carlos" and Ben Jonson's "The Silent Woman"; Arena's projects have included Zora Neale Hurston's "Polk County" and "Señor Discretion Himself," a previously unproduced musical by the late Frank Loesser.

Some small local companies carve an entire identity out of plays that rarely get checked out of the library. American Century Theatre and Washington Stage Guild devote themselves to offbeat classics, both domestic and continental, that other troupes rarely touch. And even Signature Theatre has tapped the vein in search of hidden musical treasures. Last season, Eric Schaeffer staged a slimmed-down adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein failure, "Allegro," with a revised book and new orchestrations.

"Allegro" proved only modestly dynamic, however -- an illustration of the ups and downs of theatrical resuscitation. Arena's "Polk County" was a critical hit but "Señor Discretion" was a misfire, the production's value limited to the chance to hear a decent Loesser score.

Though there's rarely a public groundswell for these sorts of projects, the decision to go out on a limb with something harder to sell speaks to a company's hunger and daring. In a city like Washington, where the competition for patrons is intense and growing ever more so, uncovering novelty is an imperative. In the case of a play like "Lorenzaccio," however, it also takes the passionate advocacy of one who truly believes.

That someone was Kahn. "I've always remembered 'Lorenzaccio,' " says Kahn, Shakespeare's longtime artistic director. As a teenager, he saw a production in New York by a visiting French theater company, and the sweeping pageantry stayed with him.

Set in 16th-century Italy, "Lorenzaccio" revolves around the wealthy and powerful Medici family, and the murder of its patriarch, Alessandro de Medici, by his cousin Lorenzo. The complex portrait of the young killer has led critics and scholars to compare "Lorenzaccio" with "Hamlet," and the drama, with its vast cast of characters and swirling changes of scene, remains a staple of classical French theater. (Sarah Bernhardt famously played the title character.) But the original is also overlong and repetitive.

Strand, a Washington writer who contributed the book for Signature's recent musical about Vincent van Gogh, "The Highest Yellow," was engaged by Kahn to streamline the play.

"I love the play but I see the flaws in it," explains Strand, who during a decade in which he lived in Paris went to productions of "Lorenzaccio" on three occasions. A problem he tried to rectify in his slenderizing adaptation, he says, was the one-dimensionality in some of the other major characters. "Alessandro is a dark, evil character from the moment he steps onstage," Strand says. "One of the major changes we've tried is to make him a real character. And his relationship with Lorenzo is much deeper."

Over at Arena, Kinghorn had been performing similar surgery on the sprawling "Intimations for Saxophone." Whereas "Lorenzaccio" has a fascinating young man of wealth at its center, "Saxophone," written almost exactly 100 years later, focuses on a young woman of means. "The protagonist," Kinghorn says, "has everything she could possibly want, except her soul."

The process of distilling the work of a dead writer requires layers of research and intuition, both about the intentions of the author and the demands of contemporary audiences. It was Kinghorn who suggested the project as a way of exposing Arena's audiences to the expressionist style that washed over American stages in the 1920s and '30s, a formative period for modern theater in this country.

"The first effort was putting together the best of the nine drafts, and making decisions about where she wanted to go with this play," Kinghorn says. "The second part was collating, and the third was cutting a bunch of the stuff that was overwritten."

To Strand, the rebuilding of a play is akin to architectural drafting. "It really is intriguing to look at this magnificent structure, this cathedral, and try to make it functional again," he says. "I know this is blasphemous, but I think we can make a better version of 'Lorenzaccio' than Musset made himself."

It's certainly what one hopes to see. A powerful "Lorenzaccio" or a memorable "Intimations for Saxophone" is probably going to do more good for the enduring reputation of a serious theater than another pretty decent "As You Like It" or "Iceman Cometh."

Of course, for Andrew Vorder Bruegge, half the satisfaction has to come before the house lights dim, in the simple act of opening the program and seeing the name of a playwright he knew all about before the rest of us.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company