‘That’s great, but come out drunk,” says theater director Rebecca Taichman. She’s talking to an actor with an eye patch, top hat, cape, gray suit, and French cuffs. He nods. So does his accordionist companion. The two are performing roles of itinerant musicians.
“Ok. One more time,” the director says one more time. Her eyes gleam behind her pronounced glasses; a happy smile is on her face.
The remaining seven actors — wearing a jumble of street clothes and costume in McCarter Theater’s rehearsal-room demimonde of overturned chairs, huge butterfly figures, and life-sized sheep cut-outs — once again take their places.
As the breathy sounds of the accordion’s step-like tones grow louder, the ensemble becomes transfixed. So does Taichman, who twirls one of her long springs of dark auburn hair and chews gum as she intently watches the tipsy and conniving musicians appear in the party’s midst. The patched-eye minstrel, attempting to make a buck, announces to the country folk, “This is a merry ballad, but a very pretty one” and extends a rolled manuscript to a shepherd.
As he does, Taichman has an idea, moves into the grouping, and, as if sculpting the moment, guides the minstrel character in a movement that gracefully extends his cape as he presents the roll. The actor contemplates the visual impact the detail will add and, as he gets it, slowly nods. “One more time,” she says again as she scurries back to her spot and a makes a note.
Welcome to Bohemia, the land in the second act of “The Winter’s Tale,” which opens at McCarter Theater on Thursday, April 4, and continues to April 21.
One of Shakespeare’s final plays, “The Winter Tale” begins with the jealous king of Sicilia succumbing to the delusion that his wife and best friend (the king of Bohemia) had an adulterous affair that has produced a child. In a fit of rage the mad king orders his wife imprisoned, his friend executed, and the baby girl abandoned in the wild. Though the wife dies, the child survives with the accused friend in Bohemia, where, years later, the story ends with a joyous transformation.
In addition to being classified as one of his romances — a hybrid of comedy and tragedy that aims at a complex audience response — it is also listed as one of his problem plays. That distinction comes from its two seemingly sharply contrasting sections.
“Shakespeare is writing about a very severe court world — very masculine and rigid,” says Taichman during a rehearsal break. “Then there’s the opposite place where shepherds and shepherdesses are ruled by nature. There’s something about the play that feels like you are directing two different plays, but they need to connect.”
Recognized as a powerful and new artistic presence in American theater, Taichman has been creating stage works across the nation and is making her third visit to McCarter Theater. She directed Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” here in 2009 and “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” two years later.
Taichman explains that it was her idea to direct the current production. “I had directed ‘Cymbeline,’ which was very difficult, and I wanted to do more of Shakespeare’s romances. There are so many things that drew me to this play, like the tonal collusion and the real magic that is in it. I think his vision of jealousy is a very powerful one. It is like a cancer that takes over. And then there’s the counterpoint about forgiveness. He goes inside the power of forgiveness. There are some big challenges for a director. I like being terrified, and I hate it too.”
She says, “I think the play is about transformation on every level. How jealousy can transform one. How forgiveness can transform. How great love can contain great pain. The play also celebrates the transformation of the actors. It’s an outstanding thing how an actor can contain many people in them.”
The subject of transformation by theater is a given with Taichman; it is something she has experienced.
Taichman was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1971, when her Canadian molecular scientist father was getting a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. The family eventually relocated to Long Island where her mother practiced social work and poverty law. While her parents were not artists, they took their two daughters to a Broadway production of the South African musical “Sarafina.” It was there, she says, “I was awestruck and got the bug.”
As with many students who are in a type of a-dream-deferred mode as they fulfill their high school requirements, Taichman says she did not feel alive until she took a summer program at the Yale Drama School and became a theater major at McGill University in Montreal. “In theater I met people and connected with them. I think that is why I’m so attracted to theater and I fell in love with the magical power of theater.
“From then on theater hasn’t been a choice, it’s been my language,” she says. The life is hard and the price tag is high on one’s personal life, she says, but “my own happiness is making theater.”
Having devoted the past several years to working in regional and off-Broadway theaters, Taichman shares some of that language and approach to making theater.
“I want to enter the play and then push it as hard as I can so that its reality is at its most full — most true to bursting,” she says for the record. “Does the text have a high fever? Is it slow and distended? How do I detonate that so it becomes its most extreme theatrical self?”
Yet she understands that the play is an entity in itself and has noted that a well-crafted play is a small but complete universe of its very own — with its own logic, rules, vocabulary, sense of gravity, and time passage. “It’s a slow process for me — stepping into that new universe,” she says. “Once I’ve gotten through the painful first pass, I force myself to read the play over and over without thinking up an approach or a concept. I listen to and parse the text, and eventually images or a point of view emerges.”
One of her guiding principles “is not to iron out any of the contradictions or explain away all the ways in which the play is painful and uncomfortable. It feels very true to me that a relationship can contain a kind of extreme violence and deep, profound love.”
Known for her torrent of dazzling tableaus and eye-appealing and bracing productions, the director says, “My goal is always seeing the story, but it’s also a piece of visual art. This is not like some guiding inspiration for each piece, there’s a hunch.”
Art that has influenced her own vision, she says, includes dance and fashion. “What immediately comes to mind is (the German neo-expressionist choreographer) Pena Bach. There is something about her wildness. I feel like I’m inside her dream universe. I love that she has the epic, huge ideas next to really pathetic, quotidian messiness of life. I also think of (dramatic fashion designer) Alexander McQueen and the way he was telling stories through clothes. I feel drawn by what the story needs. I try to tell a visual story.”
After a second of reflection, she adds, “No visual idea will come without a deep understanding of the text. The organizing principle for me comes visually. It’s a terribly intuitive practice. It’s trying to find the best way to tell the story. I’m driven by the narrative and what’s the most theatrical way can I dream to tell the story.”
Her approach is also informed by music. “Let’s find the song that serves as an inspiration of the play,” she says.
With “The Winter’s Tale” she does not need to search far. The artistic staff for this production includes Nico Muhly. He is the celebrated 31-year-old New York City-based composer who has been busy creating for numerous music and theater companies.
“I directed the play ‘Orlando’ in New York, and opera people came and saw it. They felt that I could direct opera,” she says. A project was developed, and she was paired with Muhly. The result was “Dark Sisters,” a psychologically and socially complex opera co-commissioned by the Opera Company of Philadelphia, New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera, and Music-Theater Group.
“Nico is brilliant in every way, as a composer and a dramatist. He thinks abstractly but can tell the story. I would love to work with him until I get old,” she says.
Taichman also hears the music of Shakespeare’s language. “I think of verse as music — the notes simply have to be played correctly. Occasionally, I will add a silence that Shakespeare doesn’t give us, but it’s something I do with great awareness (and usually some measure of angst). I love the wild gallop of the speech. Too often the plays are slowed down. Verse is meant to move — so that we’re sweating and breathless trying to keep up.”
When she approaches tales such as “The Taming of the Shrew” (which she directed for Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., in 2007) and “The Winter’s Tale,” she says, “Mostly I run behind Shakespeare, trying desperately to keep up. I trust the text completely and surrender to it. I try to enliven it in the most evocative, honest ways I can, but never work to contradict it.”
For this production of “The Winter’s Tale,” she says, “There is quite a lot of editing. The first section (Sicilia) is very exact. This one scene (they worked on during the rehearsal), I’ve done massive editing. The scene had to be rethought. The intention is not to reinterpret, but to try to dig for the muscular version. For contemporary audiences it has to be a free-wheeling play, with a little bit of a freedom feel to the prose.”
For Taichman the heart of the play is transformation. “’The Winter’s Tale’ investigates how the human spirit can be transformed by jealousy, by love, by forgiveness. Our story is told by a company of nine actors in which everyone in Sicilia plays everyone in Bohemia. Hopefully at the heart of the endeavor (the audience) will feel a celebration of the actors’ capacity to contain multitudes — as Shakespeare was celebrating our capacity for contradiction, transformation, multiplicity, so too does this production,” she writes.
But there’s something more.
Back in the rehearsal studio, the drunken minstrels have gotten as much as they can from the bumpkins. “Now head out as if you’re going to the next stupid people party,” the director tells them. As they meander away to the sound of the squeezebox, her attention goes to the moment when two lovers join hands. “I was genuinely moved,” she tells the actor. She then takes the couple’s hands and asks them to try it like this: arms yearning reaching toward one another with open palms that turn to meet and then softly conjoin.
As they do, Taichman turns and smiles at the transformation of the sculpted moment. It’s one where the rehearsal space becomes a world, the actors become rustics, where Sicilia is humanized by Bohemia, and a girl once bound to a classroom is a magician set free in a theater, one more time.
The Winter’s Tale, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, April 21. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.