Arin Arbus, Director of The Winter’s Tale at TFANA, Interviewed by Michael Raver.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
Arguably the most famous part of Shakespeare’s enigmatic play, The Winter’s Tale, this stage direction actually serves more as a metaphor in Theatre For A New Audience’s new production. Currently in performance at the company’s home, The Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, the near three-hour long piece kicks off with the infamous bear bounding about a sparse and towering white set.
“The bear is a hinge between the tragic and comic,” remarks director Arin Arbus.
This positions the bar at a very angular place for a production that she says has been in incubation for years. Arbus, who has been responsible for some of the most taut work that TFANA has put out, seems to find the controversial challenges in Tale as opportunities rather than hindrances. Moreover, she enjoys a bit of mystery.
“I let the audience pick their own things to walk away with,” she continues. “I find the play very moving. Shakespeare is asking the audience to examine what is possible after a tragedy.”
The daughter of photographer/actor Allan Arbus (M*A*S*H), Arin Arbus’ daring theatrical history has included TFANA productions of Measure for Measure and King Lear, as well as a ferocious take on Othello, which gained her a Lortel nomination. Additionally, she was part of a program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts, in which she directed inmates at The Woodbourne Correctional Facility (a medium-security men’s prison in The Catskills) in a variety of productions, new and old.
With The Winter’s Tale, she’s determined to forge ahead, stepping beyond form or genre. Her focus is largely on language.
Michael Raver: What about directing Shakespeare speaks to you?
Arin Arbus: Well, you know he’s a pretty good writer. (Laughs) His language is unlike anything else. He creates these incredibly rich complicated characters and these real relationships between them. He’s a bold, experimental storyteller. Winter’s Tale is sort of good example of Shakespeare inventing a new form. But that’s not the exception. He’s continually doing that throughout his career. You can get into his plays and you never hit a bottom. There’s always more gems to mine.
MR: How did you decide on The Winter’s Tale?
AA: Winter’s Tale is a play I’ve been thinking about for many years. Initially I was attracted to the misogyny and the tragedy in the play. Now that I’ve gotten older, I guess it was the end of the play that began to feel the most urgent to me. The idea that a miracle is possible after great loss or that some sort of healing is possible after great great tragedy. I find it to be really strange play. He’s shifting the way he’s telling the story as you go along. For a long time Bohemia seemed like a nightmare to me. The humor seemed impenetrable.There’s a whiplash that an audience gets from going from Sicilia to Bohemia and back to Sicilia again. It’s like a Greek tragedy and then you get into this comedy with music and dance and then you go into this mythic territory where a miracle is possible.
MR: It’s often regarded as a problem play. What was your point of entry into it?
AA: It was realizing that the language should be doing all the work. The set is sort of as blank as it can be. It’s not in any way trying to represent a time period or a place. I asked the costume designer to create clothes that felt of one world but were not rooted in a particular time or location. It seemed very important to me in a world where there’s an oracle and there’s a statue coming to life and then Time comes out as a character and there is tragedy and there’s comedy…that it was an imaginary world as opposed to a literal world.
MR: Leontes wavering about his decisions seems reminiscent of our current government. Was that a factor when approaching rehearsal?
AA: Are you talking about Trump?
MR: For example.
AA: (Laughs) I think that Trump is very fundamentally different from Leontes in every way and probably all Shakespearean characters because Trump seems incapable of introspection. That is at the heart of all Shakespeare’s characters. Self-examination. Leontes perceives of a betrayal that doesn’t exist but if that betrayal did exist, it’s a very extreme one. It’s not just about infidelity or sexual jealousy. What he perceives is that his wife is having an affair with with his best friend, who is a king, and that they are working with Leontes’ closest advisers to overthrow his reign. To kill him and probably his son. To take over the kingdom. And so there’s an aspect of Leontes that is righteous, that believes that everyone around him is lying to him. He’s heroically fighting against corruption. The only problem is that he’s totally wrong. Fundamentally, Leontes has to be a decent man in order for the end of the play to be earned. He’s a man who makes a horrible mistake. That’s what’s human about him. We all recognize that experience.
MR: While it’s not necessarily in tune with Trump’s behavior per say, it’s hard not to see some mirroring. Were you aware of it’s reflection in the outer world or were you focused solely on storytelling?
AA: I guess I see both. I was doing both. I see the resonances between the play and men in power in the world. But I also am was pretty aware of the differences. I didn’t want the audience to think “Oh, this is just like Trump.” You might think that in moments, but that’s not who Leontes is or where he ends up.
MR: Hermione’s forgiveness of him is a pretty big leap. How did you approach that?
AA: We actually had a big argument in rehearsal about this question. Some people in the company felt that it was absolutely essential that Hermione forgive Leontes. I don’t think she does. She has no language to express that she forgives him and so I don’t think it happens on stage. Shakespeare stage manages her actions when she comes back to life and says ‘she embraces him,’ ‘she hangs around his neck.’ Shakespeare has control the physical movements very rigorously. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s not language for her about forgiveness. Leontes asks for it, but she doesn’t say anything. By the end of the play, I don’t think things are resolved. They walk off stage and they get a second chance at their life together. I wanted it to be clear that things have been lost that will never be recovered. The death of their kid and time that is lost. Despite that, they are going to walk off together. There’s no pat answer to how she could forgive him. I didn’t even ask myself that question, honestly. This is a couple whose lives have been shattered. There’s something amazing about a couple that survives that kind of loss.
MR: Hermione’s resurrection is a one of Shakespeare’s most discussed mysteries. Can you talk about your take on it?
AA: Personally I think it’s a miracle. I think she’s made of stone and she comes to life. That’s what feels the most interesting way of looking at the story to me. But Shakespeare covers his ass pretty thoroughly and gives the audience a very logical explanation as to what could have happened. For those who cannot stomach (and I’m generally one of these people) fantastical events, there’s the idea that Paulina kept her in the garden shed for sixteen years. And I didn’t cut any of that language. The reason I’m more interested in the idea of it being a miracle, is that I think that’s what Shakespeare wanted to believe. Sometimes something sort of miraculous can happen, despite all of the evidence. The true miracle is that they are given a second chance, that the shattered family has a reunion and is restored. The statue coming to life is a symbol of that.
And the bear. The bear is also a symbol.
Michael Raver’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was produced by Sonnet Repertory Theatre at the Signature Theatre Center in 2012, and a reading of his pre-WWII adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, featuring Judy Kaye, was presented by the Pearl Theatre Company. His play, Fire on Babylon, was nominated for The Robert Chesley/Victor Bumbalo Foundation Award for Playwriting, as well as being named a semifinalist for The O’Neill Conference in 2015. Babylon received two workshops in 2016, first at Great River Shakespeare Festival and then at The Fresh Fruit Festival in New York, where it won multiple awards from All Out Arts. His play Evening, was a two-time finalist for Red Bull’s New Play Festival. His play Quiet Electricity was named a semifinalist at The O’Neill Conference in 2017 and was part of Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Work Series in 2018. His work has been presented by The Pearl Theatre Company, Sonnet Repertory Theater, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, The Martha Graham Company, Playhouse on Park and many others. He served as a judge for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction for three years and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV, NYC Monthly, Hamptons Monthly, Playbill, Dance Magazine, CoolHunting.com, The Huffington Post, Art 511 Magazine, Imagista and Nature’s Post.