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He Bombed in Chicago 

A Few Words With Twelfth Night Director Neil Bartlett

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A couple of years ago, drag queen, novelist, scholar, performance artist, and avant-garde playwright and director Neil Bartlett reflected in an interview on his provocative place in the theatrical firmament: "At times I think, Why do I have this compulsion toward deliberate vuglarity, pushing things a little bit too far, which is going to guarantee that the work is indigestible to some people?" The British director, along with most of his collaborative production ensemble "Gloria," came to town recently to push Chicago's theatrical limits, inflicting their difficult and gaudy vision on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and the Goodman Theatre.

The Gloria-fied Twelfth Night--raucous, wound up, and demanding--didn't go over well. The dailies hated it: The Trib gave Bartlett some credit for ideas, but called the play "erratic, clunky and boring." The Sun-Times said it was "linguistically botched, sexually ineffectual and emotionally vacant." Even the alternative press had little use for the production: Albert Williams panned it in the Reader, and Lawrence Bommer, another Reader contributor, was nearly apoplectic writing in the Windy City Times. Only New City could recommend it. Most reviews made the play seem a total failure, and gave little indication that there might have been some method in Bartlett's madness. We decided to call Bartlett--who'd already returned to England--and see what he had to say for himself.

The 33-year-old Bartlett--self-confident, sometimes brusque, aggressively intellectual--is a current fave of the British postmodern theater scene; his work includes Gloria's acclaimed production of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, the story of Victorian artist and poet Simeon Solomon, who was prosecuted for having sex with a man in a public toilet in 1873. (In the play, Bartlett himself appeared starkers, as the British say, alongside a phalanx of drag queens.) But he's also a well-received novelist and translator, particularly of Racine and Moliere.

Bartlett claims not to have read any of the reviews, but he says he wasn't surprised at the reaction. "For ten years people have been writing about us, calling us fools, idiots, outrageous. We come to theater through a devious route, out of performance art and something we call 'devised theater,' the creation of a collaboration of a number of people from different artistic disciplines, not based on a literary reading of a text."

For the Goodman's Twelfth Night he worked with two other Gloria members: Leah Hausman, whose official title was "movement director," and composer Nicolas Bloomfield. While Bartlett was the guy in charge, he stresses--and actors in the play confirm--that the three work in a largely collaborative fashion. (The name Gloria, he says, "doesn't mean anything. We just wanted to be able to answer the phone, 'Hello, Gloria!'")

Bartlett's interpretation of Twelfth Night, the story of shipwrecked twins who wind up in the land of Illyria, included a number of controversial elements. The first was the cast. All of the various residents of Illyria, both male and female, are played by women, while the castaway twins, Viola and Sebastian, are played by two local high school boys, Nikkieli Lewis and William Jones. The two boys, along with George Merritt, who plays the time- and space-wandering jester Feste, are black; the rest of the cast is white.

The actors cavort on a splendid, surprising set designed by Richard Hudson: two vast planes intersect in the middle of the Goodman stage, divided by Feste's grand piano and a huge revolving door. Characters from several different plays seem to be onstage at any given time, their movements highly stylized (actors say that Bartlett's rather autocratic methods included direction on proper finger placement), their manners frequently at cross-purposes with their characters (a sailor is polite as a maid; a maid swears like a sailor). Anachronisms abound: late in the play, for example, a police detective in a bright yellow Dick Tracy raincoat bursts onto the stage accompanied by two armed cops in brilliant blue.

Finally, and perhaps most disconcertingly, there's Bartlett's refusal to, as he calls it, "foreground the text." The standard Shakespeare moves of handsome men and women stepping to the stage apron to portentously read the famous verses are completely absent.

"I think people heard that we were English," says Bartlett, "and expected something from the Royal Shakespeare Company, circa 1984. A lot of it has to do with people's expectations. If I said to someone that I was doing a show at the Goodman and that the show involved cross-dressing, homosexuality, and extremely repressed homosexual mania, included big song-and-dance numbers, 40 costume changes, and a continuous musical score, and that the theme of the play was the politics of gender, they'd say, My god, you're doing that at the Goodman?"

Bartlett was happy to defend his staging. "When we started rehearsals we said the line to remember is 'What country, friends, is this?' Where is Illyria? Look on any map, and it's not there.

"Illyria is the theater, the people celebrating Twelfth Night are the people of the theater, and the play itself is a love-hate relationship with that world. How fabulous [the holiday] is, you can fall in love with whoever you want, go to bed with whoever you want. But also, when the holidays are over, you're back in the real world. I think our production is filled with the sense of, I love the theater, but the theater is preposterous, it's ludicrous, I want to leave, why can't we all just grow up!"

We asked Bartlett if he had changed the play much; Hedy Weiss in the Sun-Times, in particular, criticized the play for its "apparently ad-libbed obscenities." In the Trib, Richard Christiansen said Bartlett "imposed" obscenities on the play.

"I wonder if people know about making people laugh," responds Bartlett sharply. "You have to know what people are saying, or it's not funny. Take the line 'Call me cut.' The audience wouldn't know that he's saying 'Call me a cunt.' We have to take that out, or else we're pretending that we all understand all of the language of the 17th century."

In other instances, Bartlett says, he simply substituted modern epithets for the classical ones, replacing, for example, "Go shake your ears" with "Go fuck yourself." "The phrase probably means, 'Go suck yourself off,'" says Bartlett. "Now, does 'Go shake your ears' make you laugh?"

Shakespeare's plays, contends Bartlett, "are the record of the work of the comedians in Shakespeare's company. He didn't write the plays and then call in actors and a director; the prose comedy scenes have as much to do with the performers as they have to do with the carved-in-stone Shakespearean text. Now, if you think that's right, then you have to respect the ability of contemporary performers to bring the scenes to life."

To this end, Bartlett assembled an unorthodox cast of women, including some with experience in experimental theater and performance art. It was a fabulous cast, he says.

"Is anyone saying," he asks, "that this wasn't a good idea, for the Goodman to invite into the theater all the people that everyone's been saying about, 'Really interesting fringe work, I never get to see it'? Inviting those people onstage to give a new dimension to a classical work, and making a bridge between the new and daring and the 700 seats that need to be filled?"

What is traditional Shakespeare, anyway? we asked Bartlett. "I think it's one where, where peopleÉ" Words fail him for a moment. "I don't know, where you go to the theater and commune with Shakespeare. With the Shakespeare who was not homosexual, who did not allow improvisation, who never had a wildly unrealistic narrative structure.

"The Three Sisters is very much like The Cherry Orchard, and one Tennessee Williams play is much like another; they come out of a period of literary theater. But I don't think that The Comedy of Errors is very much like Julius Caesar, so what does it mean to do a Shakespeare play?"

Bartlett's casting was roundly condemned. It made "very little sense," sniffed Weiss in the Sun-Times; "the cheapest and most banal racial stereotypes," said Reader critic Albert Williams, noting particularly the pastiche of black dance steps the two kids break into when they're reunited.

"If you do the play with an all-female cast," Bartlett responds, "it's very important that you make the distinction between the world of Illyria and the two children, and Feste should be outside the world as well." Hence the casting of black actors. "If people think that that's whimsical or perverse or that we did it to be naughty they're very unaware of the deep structure of the play." The siblings' dance, he says, was their own idea about how their characters might express their joy at seeing each other again.

Bommer's review contended that Bartlett's original plans were for an all-male cast. Not true, Bartlett says. "I was met with that rumor when I got off the plane. People know I'm gay, so, 'Right, it will be a queer production.'"

So why did he use all women for the residents of Illyria? "OK," says Bartlett, "how do you capture, how do you really get down to the genuine sexual confusion at the heart of the play? Do you have a girl dressed up as a boy falling in love with a boy dressed up as a girl dressed up as a boy?"

He answers himself sarcastically, "'No, let's just have a man and a woman.'

"'Now what would be the aesthetic motivation for that?'" the conversation continues.

"'Well, I want to present a very clean and beautiful and polished version of the play.'

"Great," Bartlett snickers, "I can't wait to see it."

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