"It's set in a theater," says Mark Morris of his production of King Arthur, which plays at New York City Opera March 5 through 15. "Baroque complex theater devices? I don't do that."
You might be forgiven for agreeing that he doesn't have to, being a rather baroque and complex personage himself. The same can be said for Morris's spacious office at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, with large cubbyholes along the wall behind his desk holding some truly odd, disparate, and unlikely items, including three large grey plastic wolf heads, some bronzed baby shoes, and a rubber chicken. On a nearby sofa, discouraging any casual collapsing, is a severed arm (fake, of course). There are also massed votive candles dedicated to various purposes, a bamboo plant in need of water, and an enormous bathtub, not concealed at all by its bead curtain. It's the workplace of a man at very serious play.
The focus of Morris's latest "serious play" is the so-called "semi-opera" King Arthur, with music by Henry Purcell and text by John Dryden, first performed in 1691; without cuts, it runs something over four hours. Morris's version, co-produced by New York City Opera, English National Opera, and the Mark Morris Dance Group, in association with Cal Performances, lasts just under two hours.
Morris achieved this draconian streamlining by happily and unceremoniously ditching the entire spoken text. As he states in his Director's Note, "King Arthur is presented here as a pageant‹a sort of vaudeville‹a sequence of production numbers sacred and profane....The setting is the stage. The Time is now. The performers are themselves."
Whatever his disdain for Dryden's rhymed couplets, Morris is utterly engaged with the Purcell score. "Jane [Glover, the production's conductor] and I auditioned all of the principal singers and assigned the orchestral lines together‹which instruments play treble, which play which wind parts." With Baroque scores, he explains, "There are no urtexts. You can translate a piece of music to another thing in the show. There are elements that aren't fixed. This is a particular performing score."
When Morris's King Arthur premiered at the London Coliseum in June 2006, some Londoners missed King Arthur himself, who is represented onstage only by a large prop crown which appears in all manner of unlikely spots, ubiquitous but unacknowledged. Morris's "story"‹except that there isn't a story, really‹has nothing to do with him.
The reaction was different on this side of the Atlantic when King Arthur played Berkeley, California, last September. "People were less defensive," says Morris. "It wasn't 'an American doing something to our Englishness'. Either 'How dare you?' or 'Finally!' were the reactions in England."
But when the show opened, says Morris, "Suddenly everyone was an expert, defending the play‹like anyone had even read it! How dare I remove the boring rhymed couplets? Suddenly people were defending Dryden. But all the text we need is in the songs. It's not a fancy show. It's done with imagination."
With the spoken text gone, what is King Arthur about? "It's about love, of course," Morris declares. Suddenly standing up behind his desk and drawing back an imaginary bow, he continues, "The archer occurs more than any other gesture in my work. It is Cupid, yeah, sure. You have to be able to believe that Cupid is responsible for making you fall in love."
The show has many elements nowhere to be found in Dryden's spoken text, owing their presence partly to the madcap invention of costume designer Isaac Mizrahi. One of these is a ballerina wearing battered point shoes, a long blue tulle skirt, and a blue cardigan. Here and there she wafts and poses, like a kind of Good Fairy bestowing blessings. "That," says Morris, "was Isaac saying 'Wouldn't it be nice if you had some Margot Fonteyn as a guest artist?' It's the idea of a period ballerina, in rehearsal clothes, as a visiting artist."
She's not the only interpolated element. "Did you see the shoes that light up?" Morris asks gleefully. And what about the parade of animals in the Act V storm scene? "They're there for noreason whatsoever," Morris declares with evident pleasure. "A red herring.... A flamingo, a cheetah, a bear, a duck‹pantomime animals. Why not? Isaac said there needs to be a menagerie‹don't animals all come out after a storm?"
And a storm there is, and all kinds of weather, including a snowfall dispensed from a suspended prop bag full of fake snowflakes. King Arthur also includes a Frost Scene with a man emerging from a freezer. And its final chaconne is an utterly perfect maypole dance, followed by what looks like the ultimate 4th of July celebration‹if the 4th were a British holiday. Instead of fireworks, there are Chinese ribbons, and a flyover is staged with paper airplanes sailed in from the wings. "I couldn't have real airplanes," Morris lamented. "I didn't have any money to hire The Blue Angels for a giant festival with a flyover."
It's all part of the calculatedly makeshift look of the production, devised to have a kind of "Hey kids, let's put on a show" feeling. The sets are designed by Adrianne Lobel, the lighting by James F. Ingalls, both longtime Morris collaborators.
"The whole point is we put on this show with what would be around if you were putting on a show. We wanted this to be objets trouv_s. When you rehearse, you use chairs and apple crates. There's always a stairway, a ladder, all of the equipment that you would use to stage a show before there were sets. We have a fake brick wall in the back with adjustable pilasters, so we can make it look like a raw theater."
"For the costumes," Morris explained, "Isaac went to storerooms and got what looked like armor. He brought back stuff from the storerooms of City Opera and English National Opera." In other words, the engagingly garbed participants look like desperate but attractive members of a touring company that has raided a costume closet. And why not?
"This is some enchanted place," Morris declares. "There is a tree because it is in a forest. A tree can stand for a whole forest. Things get moved around as needed." This is done by the dancers and singers, intermingled from the beginning. "Nothing is a mistake, but it's made to look as if it just fell together. It's not postmodern; it's Baroque and contemporary, of course."
The dances in King Arthur are, Morris asserts, "pre-Classical, before ballet. They are old English dances. Schottisches, contradanses. I know them, and I made up some that look like them. All of the scenes are demonstrations. King Arthur is not a dance, it's a show," says Morris. "Come and see it. It's gorgeous. No one knows it, and it's gorgeous."
It also seems to make people happy. "It's meant to," Morris agrees, then backs off a bit. "I don't set out to make people happy, but it's nice if people get that. I never have an agenda for an audience‹so you can never be fully wrong. It's a show. A really good one. It's also fun to do. People like doing it." And, from many reports, people like seeing it, too.
And where is Morris while his King Arthur takes the stage? "I'm in the house, watching," he says, looking surprised. "I don't know why one wouldn't want to watch."
Nancy Dalva is the Senior Writer/Editor of 2wice Editions, and writes book reviews for The New York Observer and "The Letter from New York" for danceviewtimes.com.