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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 11, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
`Loot’ Leads with Laughter
I‘ve been told I don’t have a sense of humor,"
says Daniel Fish, the director of "Loot," the season opener
at the McCarter Theater. If that’s the case, then I suspect that Fish
is exactly the right director to unlock the hilarious, but, sinister
aspects of Joe Orton’s dead-earnest black comedy.
And yet since Fish and I spend the better part of our phone conversation
sharing laughs, it is my belief that Fish is merely dead earnest in
his approach to theater. And it pleases me to hear him say that he
doesn’t see farce written all over "Loot," which is rather
one of the most sardonic satires of the 20th century. Certainly Orton’s
play, about uncovering the corruptness, the callousness, and the capriciousness
of people who often claim to be in the good graces of society, demands
a very special director. In a very few moments, Fish quickly begins
to sound like the right sort of director for the job. Opening night
for "Loot" is Friday, September 13, with performances continuing
to September 29.
For Fish, the end of the 20th century had its own sardonic twist.
One week after September 11th Fish arrived at the McCarter ready to
begin the first rehearsal of Richard Nelson’s "The Vienna Notes."
Because of the horrific events of the preceding week, Emily Mann had
decided to halt the production of this savagely black comedy about
a senator and a terrorist.
"When one works on a play for a long time," Fish says, "one
becomes committed. Artists always feel the need to continue their
work passionately, intensely and devotedly in the face of tragedy.
We all wrestled with what would be the right thing to do. We had to
balance that with the knowledge that this play could really upset
an audience and possibly keep them away. Emily felt that because of
September 11th we would look at the play differently and the meaning
of the play would be skewed. I respect that opinion."
Having previously directed "The Importance of Being Earnest"
and "The Learned Ladies" to general acclaim at McCarter, Fish
was asked by Emily Mann to return to direct "Loot." He was
her first choice to direct another savagely black comedy. Although
Fish says that he had never seen the play produced, he says he liked
it at first read and attracted by the way it turns sacred institutions,
as well as values and ideals that we hold sacred, on their heads.
Asked what exactly it was that appealed to him, Fish says, "It’s
the way Orton paints a bigger and more baroque world than the one
in which we live."
We talk and laugh about the plot that concerns a tantalizing nurse,
who, though she may not believe in euthanasia, does believe in murder.
Her ninth victim, a Mrs. McLeary, has recently succumbed. Yet the
burial of the recently deceased is hampered by the fact that Mrs.
McLeary’s wayward son and his pal, an undertaker with a flair for
the macabre, have temporarily taken possession of the coffin. Where
else could they stash the "loot" from their robbery? A bereaved,
unsuspecting husband stands by as a police inspector pretending to
be a fact finder from the Metropolitan water board bursts onto the
scene to rearrange the facts.
As everyone seems to agree that "Loot" is a play that is designed
to shock and surprise, I ask Fish, if he thinks the play’s sinister
and satiric aspects are as funny as they originally appeared in the
"The key to the comedy is approaching every moment as honestly
and truthfully as you can," he says. "If I succeed at that
then the comedy will be painfully funny. You can’t play it for laughs."
Fish says he is obsessed every day of rehearsal with making Orton’s
un-naturalistic world and dazzling prose its own reality, a reality
"unlike anyone else’s reality."
It is Fish’s task to help the actors enter Orton’s world. "It
is a reality that is not unlike that of Wilde, Moliere and the Restoration
playwrights," says Fish, as he stresses the importance of total
commitment by the actors to what is happening at the moment. What
makes it difficult is that it often doesn’t have any relationship
to the previous moment or what is happening off-stage. Unashamed and
unapologetic, the characters don’t even know that what they are doing
is immoral. There is a reason for everything they do.
Secure with his cast, Fish says he has worked before with Tom Story,
who is playing Hal. He is also a longtime fan of actor and director
Mark Nelson, and Obie Award-winner and Princeton graduate (Class of
1977), who has both acted and directed at McCarter in the past. The
other cast members, whom Fish says "are new to him and terrific,"
include Fiona Gallagher, Mark Mineart, Martin Rayner, and Jeremy Webb.
The Impressive design team includes Christine Jones (sets), Jane Cox
(lights) and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes).
"I love to do plays that get peopled riled up," says Fish.
"But I am mainly drawn to plays that ask tough questions, and
plays that demand that we use the full vocabulary of the theater."
I am not surprised when he says, "I am less drawn to highly realistic
and contemporary plays," when I look at his credits than include
the plays of Shakespeare, Moliere, Strindberg, Chekhov, Goldoni, and
Wilde at theaters throughout the U.S.
"However," he adds "I don’t like to focus on whether a
play is contemporary or classic. There are just good plays and bad
plays." As examples, Fish points out that he most recently directed
the English language premiere of Charles L. Mee’s "True Love"
at Off-Broadway’s Zipper Theater, and Lee Blessing’s "Black Sheep."
A Bergen County native, Fish graduated from Northwestern University
with a degree in performance studies, which, he explains, was formerly
known as the "Department of Oral Interpretation." There he
learned how poetry can live on-stage.
"This was important for me and the plays I was interested in working
on," says Fish, who teaches this fall at the Yale School of Drama.
Citing Shakespeare, after Orton (with a hearty laugh) as his favorite
playwright, Fish also concedes that he finds Restoration writers such
as Sheridan, Wycherley, and Congreve the most daunting.
When I ask Fish to name the one play he would direct
if it were to be his last, he answers "Hamlet." His reason:
"Hamlet" "would keep me busy for the rest of my life —
if it didn’t kill me first."
Like Hamlet, Fish is rather contemplative throughout our conversation
and lets me know that I am asking too many unfair questions. I ask
Fish if the events of the past year made him more likely to consider
the issues of a play and its impact on an audience before he signed
"Over the past year, I’ve thought really hard about what I’m doing
and why I’m doing it," he says. "And the choices I had made
for a production of `Romeo and Juliet’ in Cleveland in March were
certainly influenced by the suicide bombings in Israel."
Interestingly it was "Romeo and Juliet" that Mann picked as
the play to replace "The Vienna Notes." Like Fish, Mann’s
response to Shakespeare’s timeless play, in which similar scenarios
in the Middle East are being played out every day, was quite similar.
So how can a person who says he doesn’t have a sense of humor successfully
direct a play as hysterically funny as "Loot"?
"Obviously, only someone with a sense of humor could say he had
no sense of humor," Fish finally submits. "I really do connect
with the peculiarity of Orton’s humor and the play’s subversive edge.
It’s a language play and the voice of the author is so unique. It
requires skills that I think I have. But I remind the actors during
rehearsal that I won’t laugh and don’t try to make me laugh."
As he says this he laughs.
— Simon Saltzman
Opening night for Joe Orton’s comedy. $24 to $47. Friday, September
13, 8 p.m.
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