There is NO evidence that Liviu Ciulei is related to Count Dracula. Just because he possesses the most daring theatrical imaginatiion to come out of Romania since the days of the ever-popular count, just because the entire set of his recent production of "The Tempest" floated on a pool of make-believe blood, one should not jump to conclusions.
No matter if he was last seen debating whether to project an image of a throbbing heart and veins across the stage at the climax of his production of Moliere's "Don Juan" at Arena Stage.
The fact is that Ciulei seems as blissful as a bridegroom - perhaps because he was married for the third time in February. No hidden passions appear to be brewing behind his brow.He smiles shyly and worries about his English. After describing his idea of the projected heart, he hastens to add: "I'm very cautious with effects." At 55, he resembles a middle-aged pussycat.
Still, there are stories about Ciulei (pronounced CHEW-lay) that indicate the presence of something more formidable.
Actors say he plans their every on-stage moment for them with an iron will that few directors can match.Critics cite him as a leading member of what Ciulei himself calls the "directocracy" - that band of fearless, charismatic stage directors who push playwrights out of the limelight and turn plays into directors' statements.
Ciulei reportedly lost his job as undisputed boss of Romania's leading theater in a tangle with government functionaries over a production of "The Inspector General" in 1972.
And there is the way Ciulei talks about "Don Juan," which opens Wednesday. He has never directed a Moliere play before, and he says he has seen "a lot of very boring Moliere." He doesn't care for the way the French do Moliere - "They have a preoccupation with the mouth and they have neglected other possibilities of human expression," he says.
But he is drawn to "Don Juan." Ciulei sees the character of Don Juan as endowed with "the fascination of the outsider. He dared to go his lonely way, struggling against the moral order. That's why he's a hero.But Moliere also allowed us to judge him. As Don Juan takes pleasure and excitement as the motor of his life, he hurts a lot around him. He goes through a battlefield leaving invalids behind him."
"Camus said that Don Juan has chosen to be nothing. Through this annihilation of his interests he thinks he has a sort of invulnerability. But he is punished by a supernatural power."
Ciulei notes that "Contemporaries attacked the play out of literary as well as religious prejudices. It doesn't satisfy the rules of unity. Moliere squeezed all the action into one day. He took the material out of a much freer Spanish form and tried to formalize it into French. It's as if the words are leaves running on the surface of a river, but underneath is very turbulent black water."
"It's like playing on an organ - the right hand touches the high notes of comedy and left hand plays these grave chords. That's why we use Bach instead of Mozart [for the incidental music in the Arena production].
"Under each word of the rhetorical, declamatory discourse is such a fantastic psychological truth. No line is just a punch line."
He paused significantly.
"It's really a great play," he proclaims.
But then he reverts to the timid foreigner stance. "I don't want to sound as if I'm advertising anything. I'm just sharing my thoughts."
Don Juan's "end is very ex machina ," notes Ciulei, "and the baroque theater had just discovered the value of theater machinery. I saw a very funny production in Berlin, which had little devils flying through the air at the end."
Ciulei has taken "Don Juan" out of its period and into a more recent baroque age - the first few years of the 20th century. Ming Cho Lee's set is a striking Art Nouveau fantasy of curves and mirrors and plants and Plexiglas, dug deep into the Arena floor.
"The perspective of the audience of today is too far away from the play's period," says Ciulei. Adopting film terminology, he says he would be able to present the play only in "wide-angle shots" if he kept it in the 17th century. But "choosing a nearer period gives the possibility of closeups."
Still, he hasn't moved the play into 1979. "There were social stratifications before World War I that are now smoother," he explains. "The prewar period kept those old rigid corsets of separate societies, which are important for the play."
Ciulei is an architect and designer himself, and he is fascinated by sets. After describing his Bucharest "Tempest" set - with its pool of blood, its depiction of Prospero's island as "an artist's studio supported by memories" such as a German helmet and the Mona Lisa - he bubbles over: "It was a wonderful set; I did it."
He would like to bring his "Tempest" to Lincoln Center in New York. He is one of the six luminaries who have been appointed to revive the theater program there, and he believes "The Tempest" would be ideal for the Vivian Beaumont Theater. But nothing is settled, he cautions: "The artistic thinking will happen this summer; they're still digging into the trenches there.".tIn the meantime, he hopes to bring his own company, the Bulandra, to Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater and La Mama Experimental Theater Club in New York in June. He wants to stage two plays: the Romanian master Ion Luca Caragiale s "The Lost Letter," a comedy first produced in 1884, and "Elizabeth I," a contemporary American play by Paul Foster, author of "Tom Paine." If the visit can be arranged, there will be headsets for simultaneous translation from the Romanian.
Ciulei's first wife is an actress with the Bulandra and plays Elizabeth in "Elizabeth I." When Ciulei acts in one of his own productions there, she "comes and criticizes me" as an objective director would. His new wife is a theater critic for a German language publication in Bucharest, "so I haven't escaped criticism," he says. They met while she was interviewing him.
Ciulei was a student of architecture and drama in college, and after graduation his wealthy father, an engineer, built two theaters for him. "I just cried when I saw the plans," he says. "I said "That's awful, that's too conventional." But the theater lasted for two seasons before it was nationalized. Ciulei then went to the Bulandra, where he gradually rose through the ranks until he ran the place.
He was forced to give up his position in 1972 in an incident that he declines to discuss. Government officials must approve play selection and directorial concepts at the Bulandra. But he remains as the company's top director, and he has done some remarkably un-conventional work there.
Ciulei made his American debut in 1974 with "Leonce and Lena" at Arena Stage. Since then he has directed "The Lower Depths" and "Hamlet" at Arena and an acclaimed "Spring's Awakening" in New York. His Lincoln Center assignment will mean that he will only be able to direct one play a year at the Bulandra.
He defends the idea of a "directocracy." Even if there were no director, he says, plays would still change between the page and the stage "because it's human material translated by thinking bodies. There are so many determinants, and the responsibility for controlling and harmonizing them belongs to the director."
"More and more the theater is an intellectual act," he says, "and thinking about the material and the society and what makes this play work for this audience - all those thoughts are intellectual preoccupations.It isn't a cold, abstract process. It's nearly a political act." And a strong director should be in charge, according to Ciulei.
He says actors may offer suggestions. But by the nature of the actor's job, "he must be subjective. He must defend his character. His attention is concentrated. The director's is more divergent. As an actor, I become very obeying, because I know the importance of the objective eye." He acknowledges that he had problems getting Kristoffer Tabori, the star of his "Hamlet" at Arena last year, to accept the verdict of Ciulei's "objective eye."
At the same time Ciulei adds that his own view of "Don Juan" or "Hamlet" or anything "isn't the only way to do it. It's only one of the possibilities." He quotes Gide - "L'art, c'est choisir ." Art means to choose.
He has chosen a way of doing "Don Juan" that will try to probe deeper than the traditional French way of doing it, and will take as much as an hour longer. Asked how Moliere might react to this, he quotes a line from the play: "I wanted to be a master, but this isn't what I had in mind."
"I imagine Moliere looking up from his grave, and I wonder if he will say the same thing when he sees my production," says Ciulei, grinning widely. "I hope he has fun."