Adapting the Classics

Adapting the Classics The process of adapting classics for the stage, especially from a medium like film or literature, can be tricky. If the work is a translation, how much of the original idiomatic language should be preserved? What obstacles are posed by cultural barriers — especially when dealing with a society or ethnicity whose mores are so different from our own? And how do you make a work that seems enshrined in a bygone era accessible to modern audiences?

The process of adapting classics for the stage, especially from a medium like film or literature, can be tricky. If the work is a translation, how much of the original idiomatic language should be preserved? What obstacles are posed by cultural barriers — especially when dealing with a society or ethnicity whose mores are so different from our own? And how do you make a work that seems enshrined in a bygone era accessible to modern audiences?

These questions become even more significant when dealing with classics that have withstood the test of time and tampering. With works that have been infinitely translated, explicated, dissected and restaged, is it possible to create a fresh spin that not only retains the original spirit but also gives jaded theatregoers a new prism through which to view a piece they might have seen a dozen times before?

Judging from the offerings on Broadway this past season, that answer is a resounding "yes." The critically heralded Off-Broadway import, Metamorphoses, brainchild of gifted Chicago director Mary Zimmerman; the dueling dysfunctional marriages depicted in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and August Strindberg's Dance of Death, both of which were lent brisk reworkings from celebrated scribes Jon Robin Baitz (The Substance of Fire, Three Hotels)and Richard Greenberg (Eastern Standard, The Dazzle), respectively; and the late-season arrival, Fortune's Fool, Michael Poulton's adaptation of the obscure 1848 Turgenev comedy, A Poor Gentleman, all proved you can breathe fresh life into familiar or undiscovered works from centuries past.

In Metamorphoses, one of the season's Cinderella stories owing to its accolades, sold-out audiences and subsequent jump from Off-Broadway to Broadway's Circle in the Square, poignant moral lessons of the human condition were drawn from a text usually reserved for college syllabi. Here, Ovid's collection of myths became something more. Thanks to Mary Zimmerman's vibrantly modern script, the material was transformed into a soul-stirring allegory of love, loss and redemption that had many post-September 11 theatregoers weeping nightly. Imbued with a singular urgency that helped audiences relate its fables to harrowing events still raw in their memory, the show was an epiphany for shell-shocked New Yorkers.

Yet the success of Metamorphoses, which had earlier incarnations in Chicago and other major cities across the country, was no fluke. It was just the latest leg of a fortuitous journey piloted by Zimmerman, who has spent the duration of her career adventurously seeking out classics, such as Homer's "The Odyssey" or the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, for theatrical adaptations. "This impulse toward making images with others eventually combined with my always-big interest in the performance of literature," says Zimmerman, recalling her creative roots as a graduate student at Northwestern University. "So I started adding text to my pieces." Certainly, these images are helped immeasurably by the set's now-fabled, all-encompassing, 30-foot-wide swimming pool, designed by Daniel Ostling. The age-old notion of water as a metaphor for life is given powerful credence in this production, as the pool is seamlessly worked into the narrative and acts as a focal point in the drama.

This season also ushered in much-anticipated openings of two plays about marital dysfunction, one open and unbridled (Dance of Death), the other silent and simmering (Hedda Gabler). While Dance of Death's Edgar and Alice (portrayed by the powerhouse duo of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren) seem to be the obvious antecedents to Edward Albee's battling George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, deftly played by theatre scion Kate Burton, is clearly a pre-feminist forerunner, chafing at her dull marriage and stifling under a patriarchal order that conspires to keep her in check. In Jon Robin Baitz's highly colloquial take on Ibsen's self-destructive heroine, Hedda is a contemporary creature whose over-the-top histrionics have been scaled down to human dimensions. Burton's Hedda, aided and abetted by director Nicholas Martin's revisionist insight, was almost a study in ordinariness and controlled venom; the only clues to her future downfall were evinced in her relentless fidgeting as she paced up and down Alexander Dodge's set at the Ambassador Theatre, treating it like a prison consuming her alive, rather than as a home.

If marital malaise, compounded by personal frustrations, destroys Hedda, it is the manna that perversely sustains Edgar and Alice in Richard Greenberg's intensely American adaptation of Dance of Death, which played at the Broadhurst Theatre. Unlike Hedda, whose machinations ultimately lead to her suicide, Strindberg's Edgar, a retired ailing army captain, and his wife Alice, a former actress, revel in their sniping with a perverse glee that immediately bring to mind Albee's mudslinging pair. Amid Santo Loquasto's gothic fortress of a set, representing the not-so-sweet domicile of its toxic lead characters, its horror film trappings complemented by Natasha Katz's boldly evocative lighting, this splendid revival was bolstered by Welsh native Sean Mathias's shrewd direction.

Said Mathias in a Back Stage interview, "Dance of Death is a very modern play and was controversial in its time. Most theatre in 1900 was romantic or declamatory. Strindberg wanted to do something realistic. Yet, it was an abstract realism that in some ways anticipated O'Neill, Beckett, Pinter, even Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and of course, Edward Albee."

The fever of modernism did not overtake all the classics this season. In the Arthur Penn-directed production of Fortune's Fool, about a disgraced aristocrat goaded into revealing a shocking secret by an imperious neighbor, adapter Michael Poulton did not want to impose an overly contemporary vision on this early and little-known Turgenev work because "otherwise you might as well do a modern play." Poulton, a former publisher, was facing a complicated task. "A play like Ghosts or The Cherry Orchard is handed down from generation to generation, where each makes its adjustments and improvements, tailoring it to the audience of the day," he says. "But, with this Turgenev play, that's not the case, because it was the first time. So we had to start from the beginning, talking to Russians about what made theatre work in the late 1840's in Russia."

Poulton, who is not fluent in Russian, commissioned Russian friends and academics at Oxford to translate and explain the work for him, line by line. He did encounter a few stumbling blocks: "Russian puns don't work in English, and Russian proverbs are not easily graspable. So I had to find modern equivalents while still retaining the style and spirit of the original. It's bridging that cultural gap." What Poulton came up with was a pungent adaptation loyal to the stylistic dictates of the original, accessible to modern theatregoers, yet still very much a period piece. "If you put too strong a stamp on a thing," he says, "if you hijack it and force it down a particular line, then I think you lose a lot. You should try and present your characters with a blank canvas on which they can impose their own style. Otherwise, they just become mouthpieces."

Poulton first applied his adapter's touch to Fortune's Fool in a 1996 production at the Chichester Festival, which, like the current Broadway mounting, starred Alan Bates. The current production, with which Poulton says he's very pleased, features Frank Langella.

From a season that started in tragedy and closed with new beginnings, it was a very dramatic year on Broadway. No surprise that its foray into the world of classical adaptations was more relevant than ever.

—By Iris Dorbian