War of the Worlds

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

"It's sort of like that moment in Siddhartha where he goes into the commercial world," says Stephens, who has always been attracted to art on the fringes of popularity. "I go from a theater with 150 seats to a theater with 830 seats and a subscription list of 20,000." In 1984, at age 33, Stephens became the theater's interim artistic director.

"[Alliance] had almost never done world premieres--I programmed four in that year," says Stephens, recounting his accomplishments with characteristic candor. "I also started this very aggressive push for African American programming and multicultural casting," One of those Stephens-directed world premieres was Sandra Deer's So Long on Lonely Street, which after a highly successful run was brought to Broadway by illustrious producer Cheryl Crawford. The play, alas, was generally panned in New York (Times critic Frank Rich, in typically acerbic fashion, condemned Deer's "laborious replications of theatrical clichés"). It ran for little more than a month. Several of the show's investors were on the Alliance's search committee for a permanent artistic director, which undoubtedly hurt Stephens's chances of being chosen to remain at the post.

Feeling as if he might be done with Atlanta, Stephens started taking directing jobs out of town. His friend Bill Partlan, artistic director of the now-defunct Cricket Theatre, first brought him to Minneapolis. After meeting and falling for playwright Patty Lynch, who was then running Brass Tacks Theater, he decided to settle in Minneapolis. After years as one of the most in-demand directors in town--he's currently helming a collection of solo performances for the Fresh Ink series at the Illusion Theater--Stephens began in the late '90s to shift his focus to writing. The latest manifestation of this artistic pivot is a big project, certainly one of the grander Twin Cities-hatched plays in recent memory.

 

In a dizzying reflexive loop reminiscent of the famous wall-of-mirrors scene in Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, Stephens's latest effort is a play about a play about a rehearsal of a play about a novel. With previous projects such as his Allen Ginsberg portrait, Angelheaded Hipster, Stephens has directed his own work. "The disadvantage [of directing one's own work]," says Stephens, "is that if the script is especially complicated, it's really cerebral overload. It's too much stuff to keep up with. On this, I knew that I would not be able to direct it. The script was too complex. It was trying to do too many things. It was too layered. It had too many ambitions for me to also do the production I was envisioning, which was theatrical."

For Stephens, it seems, false modesty is a greater sin than vanity. Orson Welles Rehearses Moby Dick, he says, is a "gift to a director." To be sure, it gives an exacting director such as the Jungle's Bain Boehlke a lot to sink his teeth into. Stephens's play is built around a storied 1955 production at London's Duke of York Theatre, directed by Welles, then 40 years old and coming off a notorious string of flops and clashes with studio potentates. Welles's Moby Dick--Rehearsed envisioned a 19th-century New England actor-manager company preparing to stage King Lear, only to shift its attention to the daunting task of adapting Moby Dick for the stage.

Stephens's play is a similarly ambitious work. It essays to be a meditation on inspiration, ambition, and the monomaniacal effort to recapture the elusive beast that once bit the dual heroes: Ahab's whale, Welles's Kane. That might be enough thematic material, but the play is also a critique and a celebration of the theater, a character study of Welles and a tribute to his work, a nod to Melville fans, a look at the early anti-apartheid movement, and a piece of magic realism that strives to remain a crowd-pleasing comedy.

As one might expect with such an ambitious work, the play's blubbery heft sometimes causes it to founder. Some of the efforts to pay homage to Melville's euphuistic style miss the mark or sound pompous when spoken. But thankfully, the play is often dead funny, the Jungle's hazy, noir-referencing design is alluringly moody, and most of the nine-person cast is superb. Beth Gilleland provides the evening's highlight with an uproarious send-up of Marlene Dietrich. Stephen D'Ambrose plays a variety of roles, and is especially effective as a Welles-stalking ghost, a figure that drifts between John Houseman and a mad prophet from near the opening of Melville's book. Michael Ritchie shines as the cast member charged with "funny hats, Churchill impressions, and much-needed comic relief," an epicene wiseacre modeled after comedian Kenneth Williams.

Stephens's play loosely follows the structure of Moby Dick, and several of the characters have analogues in Melville's novel. This is partly the fruit of a crafty playwright, and partly a reflection of the way actors sometimes come to resemble their characters even after the lights have fallen. "One thing that all of us experience doing theater is that the original source material enters and takes over your life," says Stephens, back at the coffee shop. Perhaps for the time being, then, our Welles-Stephens comparisons are more than just a writer's conceit. Stephens is always chasing what he calls "those seminal events in your artistic life when you touch something that's beyond the ordinary, where you feel like you have been taken to a place you've never been taken before."

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