PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ivo van Hove

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ivo van Hove Flemish director Ivo van Hove woke up Sept. 25 — the day after his interpretation of Moliere's The Misanthrope opened at New York Theatre Workshop, to passionately mixed reviews of his production.
Ivo van Hove
Ivo van Hove

Van Hove is used to that sort of thing. His revivals — which one critic called not deconstructions, but "detonations" of classics — provoke critics and audiences to either furious disgust or thrilled excitement. How else to react when Blanch Dubois throws herself into a filled bathtub, or when Hedda Gabler gets a V-8 juice shower, or, as happened in The Misanthrope, the world-hated Alceste coats himself in Hershey's chocolate syrup, ketchup, watermelon, powdered sugar and a strategically placed hot dog? The director spoke to Playbill.com about what attracts him to plays and how he gets at what he feels to be their core meanings.

Playbill.com: Why did you decide to stage The Misanthrope at this time?
Ivo van Hove: Well, actually, my first Moliere I directed only last year. I never did him before and I did it in Germany. It was The Miser. Doing this real comedy — and Moliere calls all his plays comedies — I discovered there a beautiful, almost sociological view of society and therefore my interest was culled. I also discovered, with the actors, that Moliere writes beautiful roles for actors. There's really something under the veneer of what he calls comedy; there's a real darkness. I went on rereading these plays. When Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop and I discussed this, he came up with the idea that it would make sense doing [The Misanthrope] in New York at this time. I saw immediately the possibilities. What I tried to do in this production is not only look in a negative way at these people. ...I was inspired in this by a book called "Liquid Society" by a Polish professor. He called our world a liquid society. He says we live in new times where people have relationships in a different way. We cocoon ourselves in a web of text message and telephone calls. You go to a restaurant and see people having dinner with each other, they make phone calls all the time to people who are not there. In this society, we have the feeling that we're always missing something. Out of this are coming relationships that are not steady anymore. All these things I recognized in The Misanthrope. One guy, Alceste, really believes in marriage and long-term relationships and tries to fight this society, but who is of course part of this society. He can not escape from it.

Playbill.com: So all the characters in your production are using cell phones and blackberries?
IVH: Yes, and Alceste also. I always try to show the ambivalence of character. He pretends to be sincere all the time, but he has a very complicated relationship with Celemine. He's in love with the person he hates at the same time. He hates the way she thinks and lives her life, because she wants to enjoy her life as a young woman. If he was really sincere and really straight, he would reject her and takes the consequences. That makes the whole play very ambivalent.

Playbill.com: Tell me something about the production. How have you staged it?
IVH: Don't expect costumes from the 17th century. It's a little bit like I always do. I think theatre has to mean something for people today, but what I don't like is to turn Alceste into someone very specific that you would recognize today. I like a reinterpretation of the play, and that's what we do. Also, visually, the set is like a human-relations laboratory. People are filmed all the time. What I try to establish with this is we really look at their behavior. They become really naked. You can really look at their behavior.

Playbill.com: Are the films of the actors projected onto a screen?
IVH: Yes, and a lot of the scenes are played not on the stage but behind it. You get diverse perspectives on these characters. Playbill.com: Playing Alceste is Bill Camp. He is the husband of Elizabeth Marvel, whom you have used many times. Did Elizabeth recommend him for the role?
IVH: No, no, no. She would never do that. I've known Bill for a long time. I think he's a great actor. He came in for auditions back in 1997 when I was doing More Stately Mansions. He came in for A Streetcar Names Desire, but I never cast him because Liz was always in my productions and I was a little bit hesitant about bringing them together. This time, Liz couldn't be part of the show, because she's doing a movie at the moment, so I felt this is the moment to have this man who has this darkness in him and has these artistic skills. And he is really emotionally intelligent. I hope we can go on in this collaboration.

Playbill.com: Your last production, Hedda Gabler, was well-received. Do you feel that was a turning point in your relationship with New York audiences?
IVH: You never know. You're always as good as your last production. I felt welcome from the first. The receptions of More Stately Mansions and Streetcar were really mixed, you know. There were people who were really in favor of it and people who really hated it. But both productions got a lot of prizes, so I felt immediately that my work attracted a lot of attention. It was talked about. And it's always good not to be middle of the road.

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