HOUSTON - "This is the play in which Tony learned how to write jokes," jested director Michael Wilson about Tony Kushner's latest Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne, whose press opening is at the Alley Theatre on Wednesday, April 8.
The atmosphere was informal and light-hearted at a recent press conference with Kushner, Wilson, and lead actor Jonathan Hadary in the rehearsal space of the Tony Award-winning regional theater during an afternoon break. "Hydriotaphia is an epic farce, but it has so much dancing in it and, what, five, no, six songs," Wilson smiled, "it feels like a musical at times."
For all the laughing matters, Hydriotaphia is serious business. In fact, the press opening was originally scheduled for April 1 but was pushed back a week due to extensive rewrites, an ongoing pressure process for which Kushner is known.
A sweeping intellectual comedy, Hydriotaphia chronicles the last hours in the life of Sir Thomas Browne (1605 - 1682), an English physician and writer known for the richness of his prose and his attempt to reconcile Christian values with scientific knowledge. As the great man wanes, he must deal with not just his wife and amanuensis, but also his Soul and Death, a love-struck gravedigger, a stuttering preacher, and a ranter or two, among the cast of 15. Each character has an all-important agenda and is single-minded in the pursuit of it in a "fabulous" world that spans heaven and earth, the metaphysical and the mundane, the bawdy and the beautific.
Set against the Restoration, Hydriotaphia continues Kushner's interest in periods of transitions, times when the status quo is changing. Like Angels in America and SLAVS!, both of which used instability as modus operandi, Hydriotaphia has as its backdrop societal disappointment, and upheaval. Said another way, it's a semi-historical and semi-biographical musing on immortality and death in a threatened era. It invites the notion that there is, as Browne wrote, "something very vital and electric about morbidity."
Kushner first wrote Hydriotaphia in three weeks a decade ago. Under Wilson's direction, this early version was workshopped then at New York University, but for a number of reasons it didn't go as well as planned. It has been drastically revisioned for the Alley mounting, which will be Wilson's last directing venture here before heading onto his new position as artistic director of the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, though he has taken pains to indicate his relationship with the Alley will continue, somehow, some way. "Hydriotaphia is a big farce," Wilson stated. "But it raises really deep and rich issues of how we pass from this world into the next." He continued, "I don't think you can sit through this play without laughing a lot, yet it addresses serious questions about mortality."
Wilson also previously worked with the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist a few years ago on the Alley's repertory production of Angels in America, which subsequently traveled to the Venice Biennale in 1995, and on the Alley's staging of SLAVS! the next season. Wilson therefore has loads of experience with what he considers Kushner's ribald "sense of humor and his great intellectual breadth and big heart and passion and theatricality."
Achieving theatricality is one of Wilson's primary challenges, he said. What with Soul, Death and the daughter of a hanged witch as characters, and with Browne's theosophical concerns filtered through Kushner's driving, pizzazzy sensibilities, "We're going to have a lot of work realizing the spectacle of the play," Wilson revealed. Along these lines, Wilson is directing the cast to be "on overdrive," aggressively pursuing their desires.
Wilson, Kushner and company will aggressively pursue further examination of Hydriotaphia during the subsequent presentation in the fall at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Alley's co-producer.
Hydriotaphia, a collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, runs at the Alley Theatre April 1 - April 25. For tickets, $31 - $46, call (713) 228-9341
--By Peter Szatmary