Though far from a household name, Mr. Ciulei was an expansive figure of wide and varied talent whom Newsweek once called "one of the boldest and most challenging figures on the international scene." He not only directed stage shows and films, but was an actor, writer, architect and costume and stage designer.
As a director, he brought a contemporary political perspective to his productions of classic texts. "When I re-read the play," he once said, "the problems of today’s society all of a sudden seemed to illuminate the play in a different way." Writer Don Shewey wrote of Ciulei in the New York Times, "Although he shares with such iconoclastic directors as Peter Sellars and Andre Serban a desire to bring as much of the contemporary world onstage as possible, he was professionally trained as an architect before he became a leading actor and director in the Rumanian theater, and an architect’s lucidity remains the paramount virtue of his work. He begins by re-examining each play microscopically and then creating, line by line, a fresh interpretation."
Liviu Ciulei (pronounced LEEV-you CHEW-lay) was born in Bucharest on July 7, 1923. His father ran a large construction company. He attended The Royal College of Theater and Music of Bucharest and made his acting debut playing Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the 1950s, he joined the Bucharest acting company the Bulandra Theatre, and, in 1963, became the theatre's artistic director. (Later on, he helped with the rebuilding of the auditorium of that theatre.) During this period, he also wrote a series of essays on subjects ranging from directing to stage design.
He gained his widest fame in Europe as a film director, winning the Director's Award at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival for his movie "The Forest of the Hanged." But, in the United States, he was best known for his audacious theatre productions. When director Alan Schneider saw Mr. Ciulei's work in Bucharest, he recommended Zelda Fichandler, the founder of Arena Stage, hire him.
He made his American stage debut in 1974 at that Washington, D.C., house, directing Georg Büchner’s Leonce and Lena. At the same theatre, he directed a 1978 Hamlet that the New York Times called "not the triumph of a season but of a decade," as well as productions of The Lower Depths, Don Juan and Six Characters in Search of an Author. On Broadway, he staged The Inspector General at Circle in the Square in 1978. Eight years later, Kevin Kline starred in a second mounting of Hamlet, at the Public Theater. He was hired by the Guthrie Theater in 1980 to succeed Alvin Epstein. His inaugural production was The Tempest, in which Prospero's island was surrounded by a bloody moat filled with the detritus of world culture. Mr. Ciulei's Guthrie works—which included stagings of Peer Gynt, The Marriage of Figaro, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Seagull and Tartuffe—were praised by critics, but greeted with resistance or confusion by some audiences. "I think there is, in this country, a certain prudence or refusal to be troubled, much encouraged by TV," he once said. "Many people still want the theater to be like cool lemonade when it’s hot." Nonetheless, the Guthrie won a Regional Theatre Tony Award during his tenure there.
Mr. Ciulei's first marriage, to actress Clody Bertola, ended in divorce, as did his second. He is survived by his wife Helga Reiter-Ciulei, whom he married in 1979. "Contemporary art is one that brings all the conflicts of the world into the poem, into the theater, into the painting," Ciulei once said. "It is an art that puts its finger on the wound."