The Guthrie Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that opens at the Pepsico Summerfare in Purchase this Saturday offers New Yorkers a rare opportunity to see the work of one of the world’s most important contemporary theater directors. Liviu Ciulei is well known for his stage productions and operas in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington, as well as most of the European capitals. He made his local debut in 1978 directing a class of Juilliard School students in Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s graphic essay on adolescent sexuality, and since then he has directed Gogol’s The Inspector General at Circle in the Square and a private workshop of Brecht’s Jungle of Cities starring Al Pacino. After an absence from New York of more than five years, Ciulei this year has mounted two productions here – Hamlet starring Kevin Kline at the Public Theater, as well as Dream – featuring the provocative and intellectually stimulating approach to the classics for which he is internationally renowned.

“Contemporary art is one that brings all the conflicts of the world into the poem, into the theater, into the painting,” Ciulei once said. “It is an art that puts its finger on the wound.” And the 62-year-old Rumanian-born stage director (whose name is pronounced Leave-you Chew-lay) is particularly adept at knowing where to direct that finger. In 1972 at the Bulandra Theater in Bucharest, he presented a production of The Inspector General, Nikolai Gogol’s satire of bureaucratic government, that was taken rather too personally by Rumania’s bureaucratic government. The production was closed by censors, and Ciulei left the position he’d held for nine years as the company’s artistic director.

When he was hired in 1980 to run the Guthrie Theater, one of the oldest and largest regional theaters in America, he inaugurated his regime with a startling production of The Tempest where Prospero’s kingdom was presented as an oasis surrounded by a moat of blood, in which floated such cultural artifacts as a Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and a clock without hands. Last summer, having tendered his resignation after only five years as the Guthrie’s artistic director, Ciulei mounted his bitter, frightening Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Bottom’s ragtag troupe of players is humiliated by the indifferent response of its royal audience – a reflection, perhaps, of Ciulei’s own disappointment at the lack of enthusiasm for adventurous theater in middle America. “I think there is, in this country, a certain prudence or refusal to be troubled, much encouraged by TV,” he commented. “Many people still want the theater to be like a cool lemonade when it’s hot.”

Ciulei himself is unafraid of getting into hot water, as he demonstrated at the Guthrie by balancing standard regional theater fare with extravagant avant-garde productions by a variety of experimental theater directors, ranging from fellow Rumanians Andrei Serban and Lucian Pintilie to their American counterparts such as Richard Foreman and Peter Sellars. While these productions were not necessarily the most popular with Minneapolis audiences, they succeeded in reviving the Guthrie’s position as a leading American theater. “I hope that my presence there meant a step forward for the Guthrie,” Ciulei said in a recent interview. “I exposed the audience to new ideas, to new ways of understanding performances. I didn’t cut them off from the different currents which are present around us and which we shouldn’t ignore. I opened some dangerous doors, and I think they can’t be closed again.”

Ironically, Ciulei’s own productions are much simpler and, at least on the surface, less radical than that of the directors whose “dangerous” work he has championed. Although he shares with such iconoclastic directors as Sellars and Serban a desire to bring as much of the contemporary world onstage as possible, he was professionally trained as an architect before he became a leading actor and director in the Rumanian theater, and an architect’s lucidity remains the paramount virtue of his work. He begins by re-examining each play microscopically and then creating, line by line, a fresh interpretation. His Hamlet sought to incorporate the many possible approaches to the play (political and psychoanalytical, as a revenge tragedy, as philosophical argument) without settling on one. To his disappointment, the production was received by some critics as “Kevin Kline’s Hamlet” – the liability of combining experimental theater with the American star system.

While Ciulei’s interpretation of Hamlet was open-ended, his reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more specific, dominated by images of cruelty and humiliation – inflicted by gods on mortals, men on women, aristocracy on peasants, society on artists. The captured Amazon warrior Hippolyta is immediately stripped of her leather armor, which is burned before her eyes while servants cloak her in an insultingly feminine toga. Oberon’s interference with the other characters’ love lives – making his queen Titania fall in love with an ass – comes off as blatantly sadistic; Puck’s love potion, administered while its victims are blindfolded, causes them to scream and writhe like tortured political prisoners. And when Bottom’s band of rude mechanicals shuffles on in bedraggled tuxedos to do “Pyramus and Thisbe,” they seem heartbreakingly ill-equipped to explain the mysteries of life to a self-satisfied court that has silenced its women and discredited its poets.

“Dream is usually thought of as a fairy tale, and the plot is read as a pretext to see dances and fairies – but it begins with capital punishment,” the director pointed out. A thickly built man with black-rimmed spectacles and an air of old-world gentility, Ciulei speaks somewhat haltingly, struggling partly with the English language (his fifth) and partly with the effort to express his thoughts precisely. “In today’s reading, the play seems much more serious than we used to think.”

Although he himself played Puck when he was 23 and designed a production in the early ‘60s for the National Theater of Moldavia, Ciulei’s experience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was most profoundly influenced by Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I couldn’t have done this production without seeing Brook’s, and I was afraid that I was going to imitate his too much. But I went in other directions.” Visually, the two productions diverge drastically. Brook’s Dream was all white – an homage to modernist painting, a reference to Brechtian lighting, a celebration of theatricality. Inspired by a line from Rimbaud’s poem “Bottom” – “Everything became shadow and ardent aquarium” – the set for Ciulei’s Dream is dominated by a shiny blood-red floor, befitting his darker view of the play.

“When I re-read the play, the problems of today’s society all of a sudden seemed to illuminate the play in a different way,” Ciulei said. “The description of rheumatic diseases, the cosmic disturbance, the confusion of seasons of which Titania speaks – for us today, it is the image of nuclear winter. And we can’t look at the sexual complexity of the play with prudish eyes. What Shakespeare does so beautifully is to infuse mythology with reality. You see the grit under the fingernails. If you make it antiseptic and pure, I don’t think it’s the proper reading. You must discover all the levels on which he always writes, from the animalistic to the sublime. What Oberon does to Titania is absolutely awful, and the fact that he realizes how far he went – that’s something I haven’t seen in other productions. I was a little proud of the discovery.”

Most actors from the Guthrie production were asked by Ciulei to repeat their roles at the Pepsico Summerfare. The director has long been a connoisseur of American performance. “In Germany and France, they are more concerned with the coolness, the style. Out of fear of sentimentality, they often eliminate feeling,” he has said. “The American actor gets poetic results through realistic detail. He does not forget the street.” At the Guthrie, Ciulei encouraged an eclectic casting policy. His production of As You Like It, for instance, featured David Warrilow, who previously had performed almost exclusively with the avant-garde troupe Mabou Mines, and Patti LuPone, who had just spent two years starring in the Broadway musical Evita. At the Public, Hamlet’s father, the Player King, and Osric were all played by Jeff Weiss, an almost maniacally intense actor who has been performing his marathon solo shows Off Off Broadway for nearly 20 years. Weiss will play Theseus in the revival of Ciulei’s Dream.

A band of actors presenting a play-within-a-play is such a prominent feature in both of Ciulei’s recent Shakespeare productions that one wonders if he had a particular reason for being attracted to plays about players. “I don’t know,” the director said, flashing a grin that transformed his somber countenance into the face of a mischievous child. “Except my life. Except my life. Except my life.”

New York Times, July 6, 1986