Director Rebecca Taichman promises us a different perspective on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” now in previews at McCarter Theater and opening on Friday, March 13. A co-production with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, the play is remounted in Princeton with more than half of the cast returning from the earlier production.
“Twelfth Night” is the one where Orsinio loves Olivia, Olivia loves Viola (as Cesario, who is actually Viola in a male disguise), and Viola loves Orsinio — the usual tangle of love and identity in Shakespeare’s comedies. Then there are the comic characters that customarily make the strongest imprint: here we have the drinking pranksters Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and their partner in scheming — Olivia’s servant, Maria.
Many productions focus on the characters’ madcap antics and plots, with the romantic entanglements just marking time until we get back to the funny stuff. Taichman see the play differently. “I’m very moved by the play on many different levels. I see the comedy through the tears and the tears shot through with laughter.” Taking another look at the text of the play, it does begin with Olivia grieving for her father and brother and Viola escaping a shipwreck and fearing that her brother has been lost. Taichman is interested in the opposites that co-exist in the script. “The loneliness and grief are its underbelly — a river that runs through the whole play. I wanted to excavate that. Some productions of the play gloss over this, focusing on the comedy.” She is developing a more complex look at the play that considers the whole text. “Life is contained of opposites; pleasure will be filled with pain. Ecstasy and joy don’t have to negate distress and sorrow,” she says.
Sitting backstage in a dressing room talking with Taichman before she began the day’s rehearsal, I sense the small room can hardly contain her enthusiasm. Taichman has been called “up and coming” in the press but I wonder how someone with such an impressive resume of directing projects all over the United States, with many directorial credits at professional theaters in the Washington, DC area, cannot be termed “arrived.” Perhaps it’s because she appears so youthful and dynamic. With her bright smile and ready laughter — her fingers constantly twisting and retwisting one of her many auburn curls, I’m definitely meeting the “joy” part of her persona. However, when she discusses her creative rehearsal process, she admits to a serious work ethic. “It’s very intense,” she says. “On a project like this, which is so complicated, I demand a lot — a lot of time and a long process.” She says she feels very fortunate to have the opportunity to revisit this play so recently mounted in Washington.
Her demands haven’t deterred her collaborators as the artistic team of designers have worked with her many times. “This is a complete dream team for me; we have a short hand,” she says. The exception is the lighting designer, Christopher Akerlind, who is new to the mix, but as she explains, “I would be so lucky to work with him forever.” She tells a story about their dress rehearsal in DC, which was, as she describes it, “a disaster — mine are always a disaster. I sort of have to make a mess of it, and then clean it up.” Afterwards, the artistic team gathered in the theater lobby with a bottle of vodka and talked until 4 a.m., “figuring out what we all wanted to do together. All of us were equally invested in telling the story.”
To illustrate the idea of opposites in play she says that during the show, at some points, rose petals rain from the rafters/sky. During a performance in Washington, Taichman saw an older woman smiling, laughing, and grabbing for the petals. “At that moment, she could enjoy the hope and delight of the story. In the midst of what’s going on outside, which is terrifying,” alluding to the many older people who have had their retirement accounts wiped out in the current financial crisis. “She was so beautiful — full of life and hope. She wanted a rose petal to take home. This woman in her 80s is enjoying the delight of the experience even though I had clearly drawn out the pain of the story. They seemed to be able to co-exist for her.”
She continues, “The play is really about the madness of love. Everybody goes crazy with love and there’s a real explosion and joy and beauty in that, but it’s not grounded and mature. As a comedy, what’s so beautiful about it is that it has a dark tonality and undercurrent and that feels very much like life to me. Nothing is purely one thing ever. You can be in a mad swoon and at the same time you can be wrestling with deep pain. The two things don’t have to cancel each other out. Somehow we must let them co-exist.”
She explains that even in her personal life, “it’s as important to me to be able to express longing and sadness and grief as it is to celebrate and have a good time.” She tells me of a time when her mother was recovering from breast cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. “She was like a sheet; she had disappeared.” However, when one of her mother’s friends visited, she ignored the condition, never even asking how her mother felt. “It feels like a very fierce denial that’s particularly American.” Maybe that explains how so many have ignored the economic warning signs. For Taichman she tries to find the balance in her own life.
Repeating his role in the Washington production of “Twelfth Night,” actor Ted van Griethuysen plays the duped and maligned Malvolio. Many years ago when he was a very handsome young actor in New York, I worked at his agent’s office. One day, he stopped by my desk and said, “What are you doing this evening?” My reaction was elation. That night I found with despair, he was only trying to recruit me for a group who follow a theory called “Aesthetic Realism.” Talk about opposites. Not only did I experience those two extreme emotions, as I remember it, the group’s main tenet is “Opposites are one; art proves that.” He should feel right at home with this play’s interpretation. When I asked her, Taichman said she had never heard of the group.
Perhaps the first moment that theater grabbed her attention was when her family went to the Broadway production of the South African musical “Sarafina.” She and her sister, then teenagers, were sitting down front, their parents in the balcony. Looking down on them, they told her later that they could see that she was “completely aglow — set on fire.” “I was awestruck,” remembers Taichman. At home she talked about becoming an actress, but she says that her parents didn’t take this very seriously as she made no overt action to follow up on her dream. She grew up on Long Island and adds with a groan “Port Jefferson.” Her high school days were not happy times for her and she felt out of place. “I just didn’t fit in. I was very odd.” She worked at various jobs such as dishwashing at a restaurant and didn’t participate in the usual after-school activities.
Her father is a scientist who does gene therapy research. She thinks she inherited his curiosity. Her mother is a retired social worker for a poverty law association. “Growing up I thought she worked harder than anyone I knew,” says Taichman. Therein, she probably found her work ethic. Her older sister is a lawyer who is currently taking care of “two beautiful babies.” Taichman sums up her place in the family: “I’m this weird redheaded anomaly.”
Brightening, she says, “As soon as I left Long Island, I began to do theater.” With that announcement, she sings a loud and jubilant High C. “In theater, I met people and connected with them. I think that is why I’m so attached to theater and I fell in love with the magical power of theater.”
She attended a summer program at Yale Drama School. “I didn’t know I could feel that passionate about anything really. From then on theater hasn’t been a choice, it’s been my language.” Then, in the fall, she went to McGill University in Montreal where she majored in theater — and played the role of Viola in the school’s production of “Twelfth Night.” Laughing heartily, she remembers that she wore a “cape and pumpkin pants.” Her career as an actress was short-lived. At some point, she realized she wasn’t cut out for acting; directing was a “better fit.” She graduated from the Yale Drama School with an MFA in directing, and also studied at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, where she has since taught a course titled “Found Text,” a method of turning historical texts into theater. Through a grant from the Theatre Communications Group, she spent two years as the associate artistic director at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theater. New York audiences saw her at the directorial helm of Teresa Reybeck’s play “The Scene” at Manhattan’s Second Stage in 2007.
Calling her New York City apartment home, I don’t imagine she spends much time there with the schedule she has lined up. After “Twelfth Night” at McCarter, she flies to East Africa to collaborate with a Rwandan artist with whom she worked last summer at the Sundance Institute in Utah. “She’s an extraordinary performer/writer name Kiki Odile.” Later this year, she will be at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco to direct Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo” (previously titled “Peter and Jerry,” which grew from Albee’s early one-act, “The Zoo Story.”) In between, she returns to McCarter to direct a workshop of a new musical “Sleeping Beauty Wakes.”
She is a major fan of Emily Mann, calling her “a key figure for me in the theater because of what she’s done here.” She notes that all one has to do is look at the rehearsal. “It’s all women on one side of the room: the stage management team, the music director, and the vocal coaches,” and of course, the director. Noting also that a number of women are on the theater staff at McCarter, she says Mann has created a “chemically and molecularly different environment” in which to work.
Twelfth Night, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Through Sunday, March 29. Shakespeare comedy directed by Rebecca Taichman. $15 to $15. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.