Walter Bobbie Talks About McNally's Golden Age at the Kennedy Center

News   Walter Bobbie Talks About McNally's Golden Age at the Kennedy Center
Tony Award-winning director Walter Bobbie was among the New Yorkers who descended on Washington, DC, in recent weeks to participate in Nights at the Opera, a three-play celebration of the work of Tony-honored playwright Terrence McNally. Bobbie directed McNally's new play Golden Age.
Walter Bobbie
Walter Bobbie Photo by Aubrey Reuben

A door-slamming backstage farce, Golden Age imagines the troubled 1835 premiere of Bellini's I Puritani. The play began performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts March 12 following a world premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company under the direction of Austin Pendleton.

The work marks the first collaboration between Bobbie (Chicago, Venus in Fur) and veteran playwright McNally. The two have been longtime friends and had spoken about working together on several occasions. When Pendleton could not remain with the production (due to his role in Charles L. Mee's Limonade Tous les Jours in New York this spring), Bobbie received the call to take the reins.

Prior to the Kennedy Center bow, Bobbie was brought to Philadelphia to view the production, which he describes as a "kind of Noises Off at the opera." Following the Philly world premiere, both Bobbie and McNally felt there was more work to be done. "Before we went into (DC) rehearsals we went through the script line for line and [Terrence] had already done some rewriting, which he couldn't put in in Philadelphia and we did some additional pruning," Bobbie said.

Bobbie also approached Tony Award-winning set designer Santo Loquasto, known for his design of Uncle Vanya, Waiting for Godot, Grand Hotel and Ragtime, about re-exploring his scenic design for the Kennedy Center.

"The Philadelphia set was more abstracted and more conceptual," Bobbie explained. He asked Loquasto if the set could become something more literal, ideally, "the downstairs trap room of an opera house." The designer immediately obliged, and Golden Age arrived in Washington with a new set "with nine entrances, so it could behave like a farce. It's remarkable," Bobbie said. Akin to McNally's Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata, Golden Age utilizes the overtly theatrical nature of opera music to great effect, perhaps more than any of his prior works. Scenes that happen off-stage directly correlate in time to music and on-stage action in the opera.

Bobbie told Playbill, "As a craftsman, Terrence's idea was basically to play a recording of Il Puritani and to write a play to it. So, initially the play was really written in exact time of the three acts of I Puritani. Of course, there is compression that has happened since then. But only someone who knows opera as well as Terrance could even have attempted that, or could keep in his mind what is really happening on the other side of the wall. It's blindingly complex, and yet it seems effortless. There are over 400 sound cues."

To keep audiences in the moment, the creators have incorporated various recordings of I Puritani to avoid any conspicuous voices stealing focus. Bobbie does reveal that McNally "uses his dear, beloved Callas for two pieces."

Terrence McNally's last works to play New York were Deuce and Some Men in 2007. Golden Age seems a likely candidate for a New York transfer. Bobbie said of the possibility, "You never know about those things. I would not be surprised if people want to give it a future."

He continued, "I think the Kennedy Center production is an opportunity for Terrence to see what he's written. And he's written something very funny and very beautiful. It has a big heart. It's full of a lot of ideas about art, being an artist and the maturity of what we do and how we communicate ideas to the world. It's a play by a mature playwright who has a lot of thought and experience about the nature of creating theatre."

As part of its five-week celebration of McNally's work, the Kennedy Center is also playing host to productions of Lisbon Traviata (starring Malcolm Gets and John Glover) and Master Class (starring Tyne Daly).

"It's amazing," Bobbie said of his time during the rehearsal period. "Everyone is in their own rooms working and we're checking in on each other. ...There are no degrees of separation. It feels like a whole bunch of people, family and colleagues, all honoring a playwright that we love."

"All of the plays are distinctly different and yet they come from the mind and the same heart," he concluded. "They're linked by Terrence's specific passion for opera and for using opera to express human personal issues that are significant."


Golden Age features Tony nominee Marc Kudisch (9 to 5, The Apple Tree) as Tamburini, Jeffrey Carlson (The Goat, Taboo) as Bellini, Hoon Lee (Pacific Overtures, Urinetown) as Lablache, Rebecca Brooksher (Dying City) as Grisi, Roe Hartrampf (The Pillowman) as Florimo, Christopher Michael McFarland as Rubini, Dante Mignucci as Page, Amanda Warren as Malibran, George Morfogen ("Oz," A Man for All Seasons) as Gioachino Rossini and Benjamin Cook (Ragtime at the Kennedy Center) as the Page.

According to press notes, "Golden Age takes place backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris on the evening of Jan. 24, 1835. The occasion is the premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's opera, I Puritani. Assembled are the composer and his faithful friend, Francesco Florimo, and the four singers for whom the opera was expressly composed known the world over as The Puritani Quartet. Bellini's rivalry with his fellow Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti, for French favor was at its height. This opera was to cement his supremacy. It was to be his last." Visit Kennedy-Center.

Amanda Mason Warren and Jeffrey Carlson in <i>Golden Age</i>.
Amanda Mason Warren and Jeffrey Carlson in Golden Age. Photo by Mark Garvin
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