War of the Worlds

Kent Stephens's latest project is a play about a play about a rehearsal of a play about a novel

Have you heard the story of the tactless tailor whose fitting-room observations destroyed his business? Being that I'm just making it up now, you probably haven't, so let me continue: This tailor once told a customer that a new tuxedo gave him "all of the elephantine elegance of 1970s-era Orson Welles." The sale was lost, again demonstrating that Welles is among the few figures deserving of that fulsome nightclub-emcee epithet "the incomparable...."

I would not, then, normally conceive of likening a director-playwright to Welles, just as I wouldn't ask R.T. Rybak to withstand comparisons to, say, Marcus Aurelius. But then Kent Stephens's new play, Orson Welles Rehearses Moby Dick, deliberately conflates Kenosha, Wisconsin's most famous son with Melville's Ahab and even Melville's whale. (Political correctness be damned--long live the fat joke!) Since Stephens is suggesting that Welles was attracted to Moby Dick because he saw himself in it, we may as well follow suit.

To wit, during intermission at the Jungle opening of Orson Welles, a former student of Stephens's told me that the play's depiction of Welles's perfectionism and bluntness recalled the playwright's. Welles was drawn to seemingly impossible projects, and there's some of that in Stephens, too. As a senior in high school, he pluckily chose to direct Eugene Ionesco's absurdist classic The Bald Soprano, which even at the height of hippiedom could not have been a common high school production.

And there's more. Welles's second wife, Rita Hayworth, was a famous redhead. Stephens's second wife, Patty Lynch, is a semi-famous redhead. At age 10, Welles adapted, directed, and acted in a boys-camp production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At a similar age, Stephens starred in Aaron Slick from Pumpkin Crick.

Welles was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane, the Greatest Movie of All Time (though mostly judged as such by people who have never even seen Hot Dog: The Movie). Before he turned 35, Stephens--playwright, teacher, dramaturge, bon vivant, wearer of two-toned shoes--had directed a play on Broadway and run one of the larger regional theaters in the nation.

"I had the theater bug from the time I was in the fifth grade," says the 51-year-old writer-director over coffee at a Dunn Brothers in Uptown. Stephens was born in Decatur, Georgia, but he grew up mainly in Atlanta. "My sister and I did plays. My father had a collection of scripts, because he used to organize neighborhood farm kids to do plays in the barn--literally. He would send away for scripts like Aaron Slick from Pumpkin Crick and comic melodramas like The Colonel's Lady. By junior high, I was passionate about getting in every play I could get in. But I also was very passionate about rock 'n' roll."

Stephens remains a culture maven of catholic and democratic tastes. During a 90-minute bike ride through the Midtown greenway, he probably mentions 100 actors or writers or records or movies that either have had some important effect on him or are about to in the near future: London-based theater collective Théatre de la Complicité, which he says he would travel anywhere to see; Thomas Mann; Radiohead; some promising students at the University of Minnesota, where he heads the B.A. performance program; 28 Days Later; the Allman Brothers Band; and, most frequently, playwright Patty Lynch, Stephens's wife and his co-author on the screenplay The Yellow Chairs and the play Mrs. Mackenzie's Beginner's Guide to the Blues.

Stephens's brain works quickly, but he speaks with an easy gait, and has a store of amusing colloquialisms (twice during the week before the Jungle opening, he confesses to being a "bag of cats"). There's also a touch of flamboyance about him that hints at his original goal of being an actor. For the summer, he favors Hawaiian shirts, a bruised pair of saddle shoes, and khaki suits paired with floral ties, a style that projects a certain cocky nonchalance that's somewhere between Jimmy Buffett and Atticus Finch.

 

As the above description suggests, Stephens is still something of a fish out of water in Minnesota, despite having lived here for 15 years. "On August 1 [1988], the hottest day of the year, I drove to Minneapolis. I had left my wife, and I was heading into an absolute unknown. I had [visited the Twin Cities] during a horrible winter, and now it was like: Where have I come? What's next, locusts?"

Stephens came to these plaguing climes with a résumé that, all kidding aside, bore some of the quick-rising glamour of Mr. Welles. He went to Yale University in the early '70s, receiving a bachelor's degree in religious studies while cramming in as much extracurricular theater as he could. After graduation, he went home to Atlanta, mainly for want of a better idea. In 1976, after teaching high school for a year, Stephens and a composer named Kevin Kohler began a collaboration that became Imaginary Theater, a "total theater" company that combined drama, movement, avant-garde music, Hassidic folktales dramatized in the Japanese Noh style--whatever felt right.

Their work was well reviewed, and Stephens quickly became a prominent director in Atlanta. After Reagan-era funding shortfalls forced Imaginary to shut down, Stephens signed on as associate artistic director at Alliance Theater, Atlanta's leading regional company.

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