InDepth InterView: David Esbjornson On MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Directing the Broadway premieres of entities as diverse as Edward Albee's blisteringly brilliant modern tragedy THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? - as well as Albee's THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY Off-Broadway; in addition to other notable Off-Broadway credits including the recent revival of Larry Kramer's Pulitzer-prize-winning THE NORMAL HEART starring Raul Esparza - to Arthur Miller's THE RIDE DOWN MT. MORGAN starring Patrick Stewart, Farah Fawcett's troubled star vehicle BOBBI BOLAND, up to this season's hit revival of Alfred Uhry'ss DRIVING MISS DAISY starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave and the brand new Shakespeare-In-The-Park production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE - beginning previews at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park this week - director David Esbjornson's work is always vivid, human and compelling. Taking on one of Shakespeare's most problematic plays is merely one of the many challenges for Esbjornson and that has been even further compounded by the intense and sporadic rehearsal nature of playing two new productions simultaneously in repertory, as the Public is doing this season with MEASURE FOR MEASURE along with Daniel Sullivan's ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL - which was featured in this very column last week. Talking about all aspects of this revolutionary new take on MEASURE FOR MEASURE as well as his past work, Esbjornson and I shine a light on the sensitive and moving productions that he has provided the theatre community with in his tenure, foremost of all being this new MEASURE FOR MEASURE.
Further information about MEASURE FOR MEASURE and tickets are available here.
In Good Measure
PC: What will make this production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE unique? You've said it would be a little avant garde and edgy.
DE: Well, you know, I am just so in the middle of it - I have to be honest with you. What I am trying to do with it is to create a world that demonstrates some of the breakdown of the society - and, what I don't what to do is become a moralist about it. You know, "Sex is bad, therefore we have to have these strictures on it." But, I did feel that - and I think this comes a little from my experience working with Larry [Kramer], actually, because, during the AIDS epidemic early on, Larry was the one screaming "Close the baths! Close the baths!" and he was reviled by many people because he was perceived as somebody who was clamping down on personal rights, and that's a very dangerous thing - you don't want to present something that says: we think this activity is somehow morally wrong. But, what I will say, is that is that somebody can react to the circumstances of a society that has broKen Down and become too extreme in an area - particularly if it is affecting the health of the culture and affecting the children and innocent people.
PC: What a striking and illuminating comparison.
DE: My feeling is that it is a play in which the Duke has got to do something about a world that is in crisis. So, I wanted to place it in and around the time the play was written - when there was a plague in London, theaters were being closed down, brothels were being torched, the poor people were being sent to the Spanish War, the English coffers were bankrupt. And, let's not forget the political persecution of Catholics and Jesuits that was going on at that particular time, where, every day, you saw a new head on the London Bridge.
DE: Yeah, so, all of that said to me: well, what? You know: Why would a playwright write this play? You sort of have to ask that question right off the bat. What were the circumstances that created this play? And, all of these things made sense to me. If this is what was going on and I was supposed to be in charge, I think I might try something desperate.
PC: As the Duke does.
DE: Yeah, and, if I thought, "I'm not a disciplinarian and I'm not somebody who can go down this path, but there is somebody who might be able to and I might be able to learn from it."
PC: That gives the Duke his modus operandi.
DE: The idea is that the Duke is a young man, first of all - not an old man, as is so often the case - and he is somebody who doesn't know what he is doing yet. He is attempting to find a way to solve this problem and turns to his colleague Angelo and says, "I want to put you in charge because maybe you can do something." Then, he goes underground to try to discover who he is and how to become a leader. (Pause.) So, that's the basic premise of the play to me.
PC: And Isabella?
DE: Isabella is of similar age as the Duke and is attempting to find a way to the world, as well - but, she has taken the spiritual path. She has decided to devote herself to spiritual enlightenment and to ignore the world.
PC: And, then, the two sides come together.
DE: In both cases, they go into these cloistered situations as a way of solving this, and they bothget dragged - ferociously - back into the world and they end up having this amazing journey together.
PC: Where are you placing the intermission in this production, since there are many ways to shape the structure in the case of MEASURE? The end of Act III and the angel speech?
DE: I am putting it right after the Duke presents the plan to Isabella and he turns to the audience and says, "This is what we're going to do." He has become swayed by the circumstance and feels that now he needs to do that.
PC: Why did you choose that moment to end the act on?
DE: I put the break there because, at that moment, the Duke thinks he can succeed without any issues. And, so, he leaves the audience saying, "Watch - I'm gonna take care of all this." (Laughs.)
PC: Uh oh!
DE: Then, of course, we come back and everything just goes crazy!
PC: You can say that again.
DE: I think that - again, in trying to follow the Duke's journey - I think that it is important that we end the act with the feeling that he can succeed, just not in the situation where it is all starting to fall apart.
PC: Was it your choice to go with a younger, up-and-coming cast?
DE: Well, Dan Sullivan and I cast it together with the Public and we cast it on the basis of people that wanted to make this kind of commitment.
PC: What is the rehearsal environment like doing two shows at once?
DE: (Big Laugh.) Dan and I feel like we have our pants down at our ankles sometimes, I have to tell you.
PC: It's always tense in the Park - but, so worth it.
DE: (Laughs.) Definitely.
PC: How much have you cut from the text, since some of it is Thomas Middleton's work?
DE: We are cutting some things, but it is mostly just editing. I have done some rearranging of scenes and I have put some scenes together - which I like to do.
PC: What's the most fundamental change?
DE: There are two elbow clown/Pompey scenes which are now in Act Two and they are separated by a transitional moment in the bed in which we watch Marianna and Isabella exchanging clothing.
PC: So, a visual information scene.
DE: Yes. That's what separates them. But, originally, the first of those scenes was in an earlier placement in the play, but I thought it worked really well this way. Actually, I don't even remember how it goes anymore because I have been in my version of the play for so long. (Laughs.)
PC: What other unique aspects does this production‘s play world possess?
DE: Well, I am trying to play both Isabella's scene in the nunnery and the Duke's scene at the cloisters at the same time to show that they are both sort of going through the same transformation.
PC: You're really going to try to pull that off? How daring.
DE: (Laughs.) Yeah, I am! Actually, I did a split-scene in THE NORMAL HEART, too - in Act II, the City Hall and the apartment. Sometimes you can get a lot of energy from that. There's a way in which exposition in particular flies differently. Audiences can actually take in a lot more stuff now - they don't need it to be so linear. So, it's kind of nice to be ahead of them and watching their reactions as they catch up for once.
PC: What is the rehearsal process like for such a huge undertaking?
DE: Well, we are broken up all the time - like, for instance, right now I haven't see the actors for ten days, and, now, I get the actors for ten days and Dan won't see them for ten days. I go into my first preview on Monday, but I have to stop and wait a week in order to get my next preview in. It's very interesting.
PC: Is it frustrating to you in general - the stop and start?
DE: The knitting together process is going to take a little longer than I thought. And, you just have to be able to look at it and edit it and shape it - I just hope we can still do it with the pattern of rehearsal we have right now. But, I think we can.
PC: You've done Shakespeare-In-The-Park before, as well, so you know the way it is.
DE: Yes, it's my second - I did MUCH ADO about six years ago.
PC: How do you deal with a play as problematic as MEASURE?
DE: Well, with MEASURE FOR MEASURE you are diving into something that has really beaten a lot of people in the past - and, it may beat me to some extent. I hope I win more than I lose. But, you are dealing with a very complex and oftentimes very problematic text, so you are kind of doing your journeyman best to sort of get it to make sense. But, I am excited about it. I am excited about the ideas in it and I think it is a wonderful play to work on and be involved with - but, I just hope I can stand up when it's over. (Laughs.)
PC: What does this play have to say to the 21st century and young people who will come to see it?
DE: Well, we are doing this for them - I think they will really get what we are trying to do. But, also, the idea of a world that is as foreign as this is something I am hoping they embrace - and, I think they will. But, who knows?
PC: Who is doing the music for this production?
DE: John Gromada.
PC: Is it a modern score?
DE: It's got a little bit of a retro rock bottom with a little religious, choral music over it. It's sort of the two worlds - the rough underworld and the religious over-world. We are playing with that concept in the music, mostly.
PC: So, what's next for you after MEASURE? ELLIOT NESS?
DE: No - I wish! That was a fascinating production, but it just died on the vine out there. People were just like, "Oh, my God!" I thought there was a lot of inventiveness and some really beautiful music in it.
PC: What is next, then?
DE: Well, I am going to remount this production of MOLLY IVANS that I helped to develop with Kathleen Turner out in Philadelphia.
PC: She spoke so favorably about that show when she did this column.
DE: Yeah, she's great in it.
PC: What else?
DE: We are also trying to get a commercial thing to land, so we'll see how that goes. I can't talk about it yet!
PC: Would you ever consider doing Albee's TINY ALICE with Kathleen?
DE: Yeah, I wouldn't mind investigating that play. I don't know it well - but, I wouldn't mind investigating it.
PC: Do you have any memories of working with Farah Fawcett on BOBBI BOLAND that you would like to share?
DE: I thought she was one of the kindest people I ever met. I thought she was just so big-hearted. It's really interesting, because when I was working with her she was practically haunted by the media, you know? So, the process for rehearsal became about just getting her to relax and realize that she could trust the room. I felt bad that she never got the chance to take the role the whole way, because I think she would have gotten there eventually. I can't prove it, but this was someone who had come from, you know, twenty years earlier, doing the stage [in EXTREMITIES], and, now, she was making this big effort to come back to it and she needed the previews and the process to get there - but, we only got a couple in.
PC: Opening cold on Broadway is not ideal.
DE: Well, that whole thing was not fair to her. No. It was sad. It was sad, especially, because she had already turned a corner and people just didn't trust the material - and, maybe, didn't trust her. But, I think she had a lot of integrity.
PC: She was one of a kind.
DE: Yeah, she really was.
PC: Define collaboration.
DE: Well, I think with collaboration, sometimes people make it sound like weakness or that you are trying to make everyone happy. I think that the best collaborations have a real rigor to them - they are challenging and they ask good questions and they try to make the piece better. It's the old idea of two heads are better than one. It's the idea that if somebody is taking the lead and someone is challenging, you can both make your ideas stronger. So, I think that's what it really is.
PC: What aspects of collaboration have come into play on this production of MEASURE?
DE: Well, there has been a sort of soft collaboration between Dan and I. It's very rare that directors sit down and talk about how they might approach a production, but we have really done it here - especially with the set and the actors, as well.
PC: You definitely have complimentary temperaments and styles!
DE: (Laughs.) I'll take that as a compliment!
PC: From THE GOAT until now, you are doing revolutionary work! Plus, I can't wait to see the big Albee world premiere at the end of this year!
DE: Thank you so much, Pat. This was wonderful. Bye bye.