Seattle Center, Intiman Theater, 269-1900, $10-$42 pay-what-you-can Thurs., April 4 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. previews begin Fri., March 29, runs Wed., April 3-Sat., April 27
LEAVE IT TO DIRECTOR Bartlett Sher to locate the deeper passions beneath the cheap gloss of a checkout-counter guilty pleasure.
"One time, I picked at random an issue of People magazine and staged it," he remembers. "And it became an exercise in this whole universe; you realize themes in the writing. Lost children—we were all obsessed with lost children then. And the last article was a reunion at this slave plantation. So [it was like] everybody came: Frank Sinatra and Sean Penn and Madonna. Some terrifying reality about American culture emerged."
Sher's college People extravaganza may have been many years ago, but his sly perspective on the world, and the seductively gonzo aesthetic behind his work, hasn't left him. Heading into his second full season as Intiman Theatre's artistic director with a production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus next week, Sher continues to request that we take leaps of faith and logic with him as he articulates a text's unique heart, producing some of the local scene's most memorable moments. He staged Craig Lucas' controversial The Dying Gaul— a bitter, difficult Hollywood drama— like a sleek, sizzling noir, and famously meshed crooning cowboys and Crouching Tiger warriors into Cymbeline (the rare American production to dazzle skeptical Bard connoisseurs in its trip to England: London's Financial Times called it "by British standards, a glowing, entertaining reillumination of this rare play"). Love them or hate them, Sher's singular tweaks can't be disregarded as insubstantial artiness; his shows creep up on you long past any post-play arguments.
The ability to rein in disparate elements and inspirations was likely shaped by postgraduate work in England, where a scholarship program brought together students from across the globe. "That was really cool because it opened up my head to how people perceive the United States, how they use theater, their traditions," he says. "So I did a production of a Thomas Hardy short story—my designer was from China, the actors were from all over the world, and they all brought different kinds of things to it. And I did my dissertation on the person I was most obsessed with, [innovative Polish director and visual artist] Tadeusz Kantor."
The international flair, the worldly compassion, the experimental Kantor— it all shows in Sher's work. His lovely The Servant of Two Masters last season, lighted by candles and romping along in slapstick jubilation, felt strangely redemptive post-Sept. 11; he'd located the eternal sweetness of laughter. His Cymbeline cowpokes stayed with you, too.
"I think that the DNA of theater is surprise," he says, sounding like the confident young student he surely was (well, he is still young and confident), "so anytime you can burst open an expectation of what [an audience] thought it was going to be, they actually have a richer experience. So I'm always looking for the thing that cracks it open, because then, in the newness, comes all the possibility to be a little kid to it again, to experience it in a fresh way."
Keeping Titus Andronicus spinning smoothly should be a challenge. The tragedy can come at you like a sledgehammer; it's vivid and glorious, but it may be the closest Shakespeare ever came to a pure blood-and-guts thriller, with two vengeful families sometimes literally tearing each other to pieces. With his customarily spare set and an updated Roman style (simplified togas that aren't white, army boots), Sher, as ever, hopes to draw audiences back into the play's brutal vitality by avoiding the violent spectacle it often receives.
"When I think about Titus, it's not bloody, it's not gory: It's about a family that's destroyed, and they give everything to Rome, and they find themselves horribly betrayed," he says. "Now I think [of] families in America who gave everything to a corporation or everything to their country and then found that they didn't get back what they had invested—that's the reason I'm drawn into Titus. I don't want it to become over the top, because then you lose the horror of the events. If people came to Intiman because they knew it was the highest level of adventure and entertainment, that would be great."