War of the Worlds
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 , 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.
"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."
That, to be sure, sounds like a Wellesian quest, as is Stephens's apparent animus that the most gratifying work is the ambitious stuff--the equivalent of a theatrical whale hunt. Bookish types may recall the scene where triumphant Ahab prances giddily on the Lido deck of the Pequod with the vanquished Moby Dick. Of course not every quest ends with such a happy ending. To borrow an epigram from Stephens's play: "Nothing is worth doing if it isn't worth doing badly."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.