Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2004

Shakespeare’s back at the Globe. Well, in some ways he never left, of course. The Bard was the main attraction when the theater opened in Balboa Park as part of the 1935 California Exposition, and he’s made annual return visits ever since. But it’s been more than 20 years since Shakespeare’s plays have been performed outdoors in repertory.

This year, The Old Globe Shakespeare Festival returns, with three simultaneous, alternating productions: Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It and, in its first-ever appearance at the Globe, The Two Noble Kinsmen. To helm the return of the Festival, the Globe has brought in Darko Tresnjak, the acclaimed young director who wowed local audiences in 2002 with his stunning, crystalline production of Pericles.

Artistic director Jack O’Brien considers Tresnjak “a new and authentically visionary talent” who will help create “a climate of excitement and theatricality unlike anything we’ve known in this community for literally decades.”

Tresnjak, winner of the Theatre Communication Group’s 2001 Alan Schneider Award for excellence in direction, eschews the term ‘visionary.’

“I like to think of myself as a craftsman,” he says, with a twinkle in his intense, blue eyes.

“It suits me better. I’m a storyteller whose medium is theater.”

Theater, however, isn’t the talented artist’s only medium. He’s directed opera, studied dance (under Martha Graham), choreographed and toured for five years with Mum Puppettheatre of Philadelphia. Born in Zemun, Yogoslavia, he lived in Poland for two years before moving to the U.S. and majoring in English at Swarthmore College, then completing a three-year MFA program in theater at Columbia University. He’s lived in the U.S. most of his life, but still thinks of English as his second language; the later the hour, the more tired he becomes, the more his Serbo-Croatian accent comes through. But it gives him an edge in his theater work. “I never take words for granted,” he says. The clarity of language and story is what drives his visually breathtaking, painstaking work His particular passion is “flawed but beautiful plays that don’t get produced very often.”

Hence, his selection of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a Jacobean drama which Shakespeare co-wrote with playwright John Fletcher (probably in 1613, three years before Shakespeare’s death). A smaller-scale production of the play was well received last fall in New York at the Public Theatre. The New York Times called it “compulsively watchable.”

Tresnjak will re-conceive the production at the Globe and will also direct Antony and Cleopatra. Globe associate artistic director Karen Carpenter will preside over As You Like It. Tresnjak loves the trio of choices.

As You Like It and Two Noble Kinsmen are perfect bookends for Antony and Cleopatra,” he says. “They’re plays about young love. Into the woods plays. Journeys of self-discovery. In As You Like It, the characters venture into the forest, where they discover joy, romance and reward. In Two Noble Kinsmen, the characters come out of the forest insane, maimed or don’t come out at all. It’s the sinister side of the young love story. Antony and Cleopatra is about seasoned, mature love and how it is dragged through the mud, tested by disloyalty, politics, external pressures and time.”

He is “curious, excited and afraid” of Antony, because it’s “by far the most difficult play I’ve tackled. It’s about how love intersects with politics and power. These are two superstars of their age.. They had extraordinary passion, ego and arrogance. The desire to make it grand often kills the power of the play. I say, keep it simple, and let the language do the work. I’m in my 30s now, and I’m dying to wrestle with the question of mature love.”

As for Two Noble Kinsmen, Tresnjak considers it “genuinely unsettling. What it has to say about human nature is frightening.” The play, a melancholy adaptation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, takes place in Athens after the defeat of Thebes by Theseus. The two kinsmen are Theban cousins Palamon and Arcite, who spy Theseus’ sister-in-law Emilia from their prison window. Each immediately falls in love with her, and their “eternal friendship” turns to enmity. Meanwhile, the jailor’s daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and helps him to escape and hide in the forest. As a result of duels, threats of exile and death, as well as unrequited love, the jailor’s daughter goes mad.  

“It’s a more potent view of madness than [Hamlet‘s] Ophelia,” says Tresnjak. “The doctor who comes to treat the jailer’s daughter realizes that the only way to help her is to keep her inside insanity. At the end of the play, she’s bonkers but happy. Here, the sane are miserable or dead. The insane character is happy in love. There’s also an air of sexual ambiguity. Everyone exists in sexual flux. It’s been argued that it’s actually a play about the problems of monogamy. There is some element of schizophrenia, the mark of dual authorship. It’s a very complex play that gives no easy answers. But great plays never do.”

There’s a lot less ambiguity in Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It, although there is a bit of cross-dressing. The magnificent character of Rosalind (Shakespeare’s longest female role) disguises herself as the youth Ganymede and takes to the forest of Arden, where, after much ado (so to speak), four couples are united and wed.

The summer Festival comes on the heels of a particularly fertile Shakespeare winter in San Diego. In rapid succession, we were treated to impressive productions of Macbeth (Sledgehammer Theatre), Hamlet (Lamb’s Players Theatre), Richard III (UCSD Theatre), The Taming of the Shrew (SDSU Theatre) and Henry IV, Part I (Poor Players; see article, p. XX). But it will be something else again to see a repertory company, alternately appearing in three Shakespeare plays. Tresnjak’s Antony will include the full company of 29; Two Noble Kinsmen will feature 18, expanded from 10 actors in New York. The troupe is the product of six months of auditions in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York.

“It was a difficult task,” Tresnjak admits. “They were chosen for acting ability, appropriateness for the roles — and for playing well with others. They’ll have to live together for five months. It’s incredibly brave and noble for the Globe to do repertory when so many theaters have let it go, in this age of film and TV and their demands on actors.”

The company includes Globe veteran/associate artist Jonathan McMurtry and the Globe/USD MFA students.

“I’m always putting myself inside the skin of the characters,” Tresnjak says of his directorial approach. “I never forget an experience that really moved me in graduate school. [Actress] Priscilla Smith said: ‘You ask us to get onstage and be vulnerable. But you never are.’ I get vulnerable in front of actors and tell them exactly what I love about the play.

“I’ve been lucky,” he continues. “I’ve only worked on plays I love. And that’s what I tell students.” Tresnjak taught directing briefly at UCSD last year, and has signed on for another year. “I say, ‘Pick what you love. And think: What is the journey of each character? What is the essence of the story? Then visualize around that.'”

Of the three Festival plays, Tresnjak says, “These are examples of how theater can expose uncomfortable truths. Now, our job, with a basic set, elegant props, theatrical tricks and great visual variety, is to deliver the three most beautiful shows possible.”

[Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It and The Two Noble Kinsmen run in repertory, outdoors at the Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, from June 25-September 26].

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.