How do you make the classics feel fresh? One option: find innovative ways to stage them. Another option: expand the definition of “classics”. The fact of Classic Stage Company’s continued relevance, appeal, and durability within Off-Broadway theater is due to a smart combination of the two…not to mention casting Peter Sarsgaard, Bebe Neuwirth, and John Turturro. In 2011, I interviewed artistic director Brian Kulick on the eve of CSC’s world-premiere of Unnatural Acts, a based-on-real-events portrayal of Harvard’s underground gay community in the 1920’s. Co-conceived by director Tony Speciale and collaboratively written by members of the Plastic Theatre that same year, the play seemed like an unusual selection for a theater dedicated to classic drama. So I asked Kulick how he defines the term. He responded, “A classic is a play that refuses to stop resonating.”
In Kulick’s hands, CSC is benefitting from that broad interpretation. Currently on stage is Stephen Sondheim's Passion – the first New York revival of the musical and the first musical ever to be staged at the downtown theater. Frequent Sondheim collaborator John Doyle directs this production, though instead of having actors play instruments (as in previous Doyle-Sondheim productions), the nine-member orchestra is perched above the stage.
The placement of musicians doesn’t ostensibly have anything to do with Passion, but I found it to be another example of CSC’s continued reinvention. Because there is no room onstage to set up an orchestra, CSC converted its second floor office space into an “orchestra pit” and broke through the walls to expose the area to the audience below. Seeing an elevated orchestra heightens the audience's awareness of the musician as storyteller, particularly for a narrative composer like Sondheim. Space constraints lead to a new musical format = creativity borne out of necessity.
Director John Doyle’s work also benefits from this format. Doyle is often referred to as a minimalist, but I don’t believe that’s his exact intention. It’s more that he gets to the heart of the story and dismisses the pomp that can accompany big musicals. A few weeks before seeing Passion, I went to a panel discussion at WNYC’s Greene Space with Stephen Sondheim. John Doyle, and the lead cast members of the show. Doyle remarked that what is taken to be his creative style in actuality stems from spending years directing small-budget shows where money was scarce. “I got used to working with minimal resources,” he said. “I do everything I can not to get in the way of the story.” That method has stuck with him. The set in Doyle’s revival is a bare black marble floor with two gilded mirrors and light sconces against a back wall. The sparseness transfers our focus to the characters.
This production shows the beauty of Passion – how love transforms its shape and how it transfers its recipient. The cast, Melissa Errico, Judy Kuhn, and an amazing Ryan Silverman were transporting without falling into melodrama. It wouldn’t be surprising if musicals become a regular occurrence at CSC; this version of Passion is an auspicious first go at it. I would agree with Kulick that any great work of art refuses to stop resonating. Evidently, it pays to dust off the classics.