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The Measure of a No-Holds Bard Director
Aaron Posner Plays With Shakespeare

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Next, he plunges into trickier territory still: an original musical, written with composer James Sugg. Based on a recently discovered short story by Mark Twain, "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage" has its premiere at Round House Theatre in May.

Posner's output attests to the idea that a director with vision can thrive without exposure in the country's top theater town.

"I've never worked in New York and I've never set my sights there," he says. His concentration has been on developing contacts elsewhere. Still, he's aware of the profile-raising benefits of working there. "When New York calls and asks me to work there," he says, "I'd be thrilled."

He's not holding his breath, though. Too many other projects await on which he wants to get his paws. Shakespeare is a special fascination. A Posner production of "Twelfth Night" takes its cue from a famous line of dialogue -- "If music be the food of love, play on!" -- and what ensues is a song-infused evening, in which actors take enchanting turns at a piano. Or, playing off the idea of the manipulations of an enigmatic Duke, a "Measure for Measure" is staged in which puppets, which have faces straight out of bleak fairy tales, are cast in a slew of showy supporting roles.

"He was pretty influential on the way I direct," says Jeremy Skidmore, artistic director of Theater Alliance, who served as assistant director on Posner's "As You Like It" in 2001, his first production for Folger. "He has a playfulness he brings to rehearsal. I'm not a good listener in real life, but I am now in rehearsals, and that's because of Aaron.

"He's a really good listener, and one of the most curious people I know. Curiosity is a major thing that feeds him."

That's apparent in his "Measure for Measure," whose run at Folger was extended; it continues through the end of the week. The play is Shakespeare's strange and twisted story of an ambitious deputy to the Duke who, seeking to bring order to libertine Vienna, revives a draconian statute that prescribes the death penalty for extramarital intercourse. The deputy, Angelo, is a raging hypocrite. The crux of the plot is Angelo's attempt to force a religious novice, Isabella, to have sex with him, in return for the life of her brother, who has been condemned to die for the crime of fornication.

Michele Osherow -- an old friend of Posner's who plays Mariana, Angelo's spurned fiancee, in the Folger production -- had lobbied Posner for years to take on "Measure," a play she adored for its juicy ambiguities. She thought his lack of pretension made him right for the assignment.

"I loved his focus on telling stories," says Osherow, a Silver Spring resident and visiting assistant English professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "And I loved his sense of humor."

For the longest time, though, Posner was on the side of the husbands with this thorny play. Isabella, the intransigent heroine, was a particular obstacle: How, he wondered, could audiences accept a woman who regarded her chastity as more important than her brother's life?

Ultimately, the play's thorniness won him over. He conceived of a production that would have audiences arguing about it into the night. "It was a willingness to trust the brilliance and the messiness of the play," he says.

The key for him became the mysterious Duke (played at the Folger by Mark Zeisler), who turns over the reins of the city to Angelo but who, in disguise, monitors everything, and sets in motion Isabella's revenge.

"The idea of the Duke as puppet master stayed with me," he explains. (The Duke-in-disguise is portrayed by a puppet that is manipulated by Zeisler.) Slowly, too, Posner developed the idea of having other minor characters, such as a constable and prisoner, played by puppets, because the portrayals were totally defined by their functions in society.

They also had the value, Posner says, "of constantly calling attention to the theatricality of the play." And a kind of theatricality that can be enjoyed by the wives as well as the husbands.

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