The Measure of a No-Holds Bard Director
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
The Folger Shakespeare Library conservator who has brought the precious volume of Shakespeare from 1623 into the august Founders' Room suddenly looks as if she wants to curl into the fetal position.
"I'm your worst nightmare, aren't I?" Aaron Posner says to her, as he begins to "examine" the rare First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays from the Folger collection. It's worth, oh, maybe a gazillion dollars or two, and here the director of Folger Theatre's hit version of "Measure for Measure" riffles through it as if it were the Fairfax phone book. Any minute now, it seems, the horrified worker might need a defibrillator.
"No flipping through!" she finally says to him anxiously.
As Posner tries to be more gentle with the pages, you realize you're gaining some insight into how he treats Shakespeare on the stage: decidedly hands-on. As illustrated by his wildly inventive "Measure for Measure," Posner is not afraid to leave fingerprints.
He cuts speeches, eliminates characters, changes the order of scenes, updates phrases. (His literary adviser for the production drew the line when he sought to use "castrate" in place of Shakespeare's more poetic "geld and splay.") And did we mention puppets? Alongside the flesh-and-blood actors, a collection of nearly life-size dolls is used for some of the play's most indelible comic parts, from Elbow the constable to Mistress Overdone, a prostitute.
Overdone is how the license taken with Shakespeare often feels. But Posner's textual experiments are rarely arbitrary or capricious. It's an imaginative agenda that has helped make the Philadelphia-based director increasingly sought after by theaters in Washington, where his productions of plays both famous and obscure are regularly greeted with admiring notices. He would have to be at the top of any list of young directors whose work on local stages routinely is an intriguing event.
Finding innovative stage directors with a strong, audience-pleasing point of view and the confidence to take on the classics is a formidable task. The rise of 41-year-old Posner, however, is proof that it's worth it for companies to continue to beat the bushes -- and stick with these creative souls as their visions mature. Posner, for instance, has staged six productions at Folger, including well-received versions of "Twelfth Night" and "Two Gentlemen of Verona." But his direction of "Measure for Measure" -- a later, more psychologically complex Shakespearean comedy -- is certainly a high-water mark, the output of a director confidently exercising all of his skills.
"I am evangelistic about making the work accessible, making it connect with the audience," Posner said during a recent conversation at the Folger Library, which runs Folger Theatre, a company that annually presents three classical plays -- two of them, usually, by Shakespeare. "I always say," he added, "we must remember the 'husbands.' Though some of them are women."
By husbands, Posner means those reluctant theatergoers who practically have to be chloroformed before being taken to Shakespeare -- people "who are sure they won't understand it and who know, above all else, that it's going to be boring." He says he has failed if he doesn't reach the husbands.
"I am not doing Shakespeare's plays," he explains, "for the Shakespeare scholar."
In pursuit of the husbands, Posner, an Oregon native, has worked as an itinerant director all across the country. His base in Philadelphia has long been Arden Theatre, a company he founded in 1988 with Terry Nolen and Amy Murphy, after graduating from Northwestern University's highly regarded theater program. He left as Arden's co-artistic director several years ago, but continues to direct there regularly; his revival of Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" begins performances Thursday at Arden.
His tastes range from classical to contemporary and everything quirkily in between -- at Folger in 2004, he staged the world premiere of "Melissa Arctic," Craig Wright's modern spin on "The Winter's Tale" -- and displays a yen for things even more exotic. Last year, for instance, he received plaudits for a production at Theater Alliance of an obscure Hungarian comedy, "Headsman's Holiday," that he first encountered on a fellowship in Eastern Europe.