HOUSTON -- "I always think that plays shouldn't just make statements," Tony Kushner explained at a recent press conference in the rehearsal hall of the Alley Theatre.
Joined by director Michael Wilson and veteran Broadway actor Jonathan Hadary, Kushner was specifically talking about Hydriotaphia, a sweeping intellectual comedy he wrote in 1987 but which is getting its first major production, with Wilson and Hadary, at the Alley Mar. 27-Apr. 25, opening Apr. 1. "If a play just did that, make statements," Kushner continued, "I could save audiences the price of admission and just tell them what I think."
Hydriotaphia is set in the sick room of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), 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 not just with his wife and amanuensis, but also his Soul and Death, not to mention a love-struck gravedigger, a stuttering preacher, and a ranter or two, among the cast of 15. Each has his/her own agenda and issingle-minded in pursuit of it, in a "fabulous" world that spans heaven and earth, the metaphysical and the mundane.
If Kushner had to pinpoint a main intention in Hydriotaphia, he said, it'd be how the political and economic systems effect everything, even how people die. Set against the Restoration, Hydriotaphia continues Kushner's interest in periods of transitions, times when social order 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." Not that Hydriotaphia is a lecture. Far from it. "It's an epic farce, which is unusual, because typically epic farces are three acts, bang, bang, bang. This is 5 acts, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang." Some of the comedy is grotesque, goings-on about bodily functions. Much of it is gallows humor, "having fun in the face one's mortality." And a certain whimsy comes from Kushner's refusal to recreate seventeenth century speech; instead, he creates a bumpkin language by mixing Yorkshire and Brooklyn dialects with the language from the Krazy Kat comic strip.
Kushner said he wrote Hydriotaphia in three weeks. It had been workshopped at New York University, with Michael Wilson, the newly appointed artistic director of the Hartford Stage, directing, but for a number of reasons it didn't go as well as planned. It has been drastically reworked, and is still undergoing shaping during rehearsals. "The rewriting is a complicated thing. Every character was originally written for close friends." Kushner said that he, along with Wilson, Hadary, and the rest of the cast, are trying to attend to what needs fixing without losing the values inherent within the piece.
Kushner elaborated that his first impulse was to stage Browne's essay "Hydriotaphia." A treatise on funeral rites of ancient nations, and the resulting theosophical implications, it's so mathematical in its elevated thinking that it folds into itself. "It's so dense, so ornate, that it dismantles itself and becomes more poetry than prose. It gets carried away with its ecstasy and its logorrhea." A second reason why Kushner decided to write more about the man than the essay is that Kushner's uncle had recently died of cancer. And then there was the AIDS epidemic. Death, in other words, was all around him.
As in Kushner's major work, Hydriotaphia abounds with collisions, momentum built through escalating crises of the variously obsessed, and he agreed that issues define his characters as much, if not more, than his characters define the issues. "I don't necessarily think that people change readily," he said. "People are rather rigid." They have, he advanced, a fear of loss. Characters in plays who develop over two hours don't gibe with what he thinks human nature is all about. "I write very plot-driven, very narrative-driven." To do otherwise is "dicey," Kushner said.
Hydriotaphia, a collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, opens April 1 at the Alley Theatre in Houston and runs through April 25. For tickets, $31-$46, call (713) 228-9341
-- By Peter Szatmary