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Andre Ernotte’s Show Goes On

This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on March 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

Andre Ernotte, the Belgian director, was too ill to

begin rehearsals in February at McCarter Theater for Moliere’s "The

Learned Ladies," a production that he conceived. The 55-year-old

Ernotte died on March 8 of liver disease. Daniel Fish took over direction

of the play, which opens on Friday, March 26, and runs through April

11.

While Ernotte received considerable praise for his direction at New

York’s Vineyard Theater of Polly Pen’s progressive new musicals, including

"Goblin Market," "Bed and Sofa," and "Christina

Alberta’s Father," Ernotte’s artistry was particularly admired

by his long-time friend Emily Mann, McCarter’s artistic director.

Mann believed the Moliere farce, "The Misanthrope," to be

the perfect vehicle for Ernotte’s McCarter debut in 1996. And she

was right. The production was warmly received. Another go-round with

Moliere was planned for Ernotte. It was not to be.

I met with Ernotte at McCarter in March, 1996, when he was directing

"Misanthrope." When I asked Ernotte if his staging of Moliere’s

classic 17th-century farce was going to be as challenging for him

as working with Pen on her cutting-edge contemporary work, he answered

without hesitation. "With both plays I am blending high techniques

with passion. I thrive on it." Ernotte left his passionate mark

on the theater.

"My whole existence and my way of doing things is based on paradox,"

he explained, as he recalled his days as a theater student in Brussels.

"Because the theater directors there were so cerebral, I studied

acting. Also film was much more focused than theater. So I studied

film." Ernotte’s first feature film, "High Street," was

chosen to represent Belgium at the Oscars and acted as a springboard

to bring him to New York.

Although he had directed other plays by Moliere and by Marivaux, Ernotte

had never produced "The Misanthrope." He confessed that it

was Emily Mann who helped him decide on this popular classic European

play to fill out "the landscape of the season." Ernotte most

recently collaborated at McCarter with Polly Pen, the theater’s artist-in-residence,

in November, 1998, on the staged reading of Pen’s work-in-progress

"Night Governess."

If the ego of this internationally-respected director was worn attractively

on his sleeve, it enabled us to discuss two qualities we both agreed

he brought to a play — substance and pizzazz. These were Ernotte’s

personal prerequisites. It was apparent that Ernotte wanted people

to know he had the best of all worlds — "I’m having my cake

and eating it, too" — staging massive, high-impact shows in

Europe while doing interesting new work in New York. That new work

has been seen at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theater Club, and

at the Public Theater, where Joseph Papp showcased Ernotte’s film

"High Street."

Ernotte stressed the importance of creating an ensemble on stage.

He would not tolerate a stage of stars who inflict their own "method"

— be it Kabuki or psychobabble — on the same play. "Image

creating" is what appealed to Ernotte, who cited directors Robert

Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Lee Bruer as some of his favorites. He

commended Mike Nichols for his seemingly invisible directorial touch.

Yet it was the epic direction of Peter Brook that Ernotte said he

most admired.

But there were the other guides who acted as an inspiration to Ernotte.

He cited Gurdjieff’s "Meetings with Remarkable Men" as a meaningful

book in his life. He also expressed his interest in Asian philosophy,

Zen in particular. "Philosophy is more important to me than art,"

he said. "Meditation is more important to me than success or achievement."

It is the combination of serenity, distance, witnessing, as well as

a social conscience, that led Ernotte to devote part of his time to

working with the homeless and the dying. Ernotte found he could merge

his arts skills with social service work. He created a program for

hospitals in New York that is based on creative writing, improvisation,

and poetry. With another group, Hearts and Voices, that works with

the dying, Ernotte said he was able to "join spirituality with

the arts." This was my meeting with a remarkable man.

— Simon Saltzman

The Learned Ladies, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. Opening night for Moliere’s lesser known satire

about a clique of bookish woman under the spell of a money-hungry

literary fake. Through April 11. Friday, March 26, 8 p.m.


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