Peter Dubois hits his stride at the Huntington
On a recent morning, Peter Dubois sits in the balcony of the BU Theatre, beaming like a kid in a candy shop. Below him the crew for the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Prelude to a Kiss, which he’s directing, is running through scene changes. As the apartment for the play’s protagonists - Peter and Rita - smoothly slides into place, he shouts his approval. Next the set glides away and the panels at the rear of the stage change from green (the predominate color of Scott Bradley’s set) to midnight blue, creating a dreamy, nocturnal look. "I love the way that’s done," he says. "It’s so beautiful."
Cut to six days later. Dubois is standing on the stage of the newly refurbished Paramount Theatre accepting the Elliot Norton Award for Fences, which won the Best Production - Large Company from the Boston Theater Critics Association. There was little doubt he would be standing there accepting that award since the Huntington Theatre Company, where Dubois is completing his second year as artistic director, had a monopoly on the nominees. (Along with Fences, the acclaimed productions of All My Sons and Stick Fly were short-listed.) And, again, that look of joy again comes across his face.
If Boston theater (or theater anywhere) has an unabashed cheerleader, it is Dubois, whether it be acknowledging the Huntington at an award ceremony or explaining to the company’s board of directors the meaning of a sexual term used in The Miracle of Naples, David Grimm’s ribald comedy that Dubois put up at the theater’s Calderwood Pavilion his first season. He’s obviously doing something right - in addition to winning awards, the theater has a return subscription rate of 80%, some 20% above average. But back to the balcony where I’m speaking to Dubois about two things: his recently announced 2010-2011 season, which includes two plays he will be directing; and Prelude to a Kiss, his production of Craig Lucas’s 1988 fantasy about a seemingly healthy young woman who is possessed by the body of an aging man on her wedding day.
First produced in January 1988 by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, Prelude... opened off-Broadway (with a cast featuring Alec Baldwin and Mary Louise Parker) two years later to rave reviews, which prompted a move uptown where it was nominated for a Tony and was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2007 the Roundabout Theatre Company produced its first Broadway revival with Lucas providing an updated script.
EDGE: You are ending the season with Prelude to a Kiss. Why this play, and why now?
Peter Dubois: Because it’s a really beautiful play. I think Craig has written a stunning piece of writing that has endured -- a contemporary masterpiece. And in rehearsal we have found out why -- it is this beautiful love story. Craig is really great at getting you incredibly high on the story then taking you someplace very, very dark, then pulling you out at the end. So the challenge is for us to honor that emotional arc.
EDGE: It was originally produced on Broadway in 1990, and it was revived in 2007. Had you seen those productions, or any others?
Peter Dubois: I’ve never seen it on stage. And I got the movie and turned it off after two minutes because I didn’t want it in my head. Instead I rented The Dying Gaul, the film that Craig directed based on his play. (The Dying Gaul concerns a deadly game of cat-and-mouse played by on the Internet three distinctly Hollywood types.) That was really informative in terms of approaching this play in terms of the sense of suspense, crossing over into the other worlds. It is why I hired Scott Bradley, the set designer, he did the New York production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, and I have this really strong sense of his ability to tap into the metaphysical; and Craig writes from that point of view. He’s deeply political, he’s deeply intellectual, and at the same time, I always say to the actors that he’s really good at f’ing the ineffable. He goes into the ineffable and finds the ’f’. He’s just incredible at tapping this sense of crossing over to the other side and people and souls connecting in way that’s profound and beyond flesh and blood.
EDGE: Much has been written about the play being a metaphor for AIDS. It certainly was viewed that way back in 1990; but this begs the question - how does the play hold up today?
Peter Dubois: In a lot of ways it holds up. At the time the idea of going to bed with someone young and waking up with someone old was resonating with people. This play, Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America cropped up at about the same time as commentaries on the epidemic; but I think this play endures as a love story, not just as a touchstone for AIDS. It was that in terrifying 1980s; but I think what now plays is this is this fairy tale/fable-like story that comes up as a metaphor for so many difficulties and challenges. I think people can project onto it many different things.
EDGE: I read in the program notes that you are doing an updated version of the script. Who is responsible for that?
Peter Dubois: That was Craig. They did a revival at the Roundabout about three years ago and he updated it for that; then he said that if I wanted to use that script, I could; or I could use the original. It was up to us. We’ve primarily used the script from the revival and we put it in the present.
EDGE: The play has a magical, I guess, whimsical quality. How do you capture that on stage?
Peter Dubois: I find with this one in particular the important thing is to keep the acting extremely naturalistic. Where it is quirky, let it be quirky. Then the challenge is to keep those naturalistic rhythms, but let them fill a 900-seat house. The casting was difficult because we needed to find actors who could be completely real -- genuine. We needed actors who don’t feel like ’actors’ -- like real life human beings. Lived-in, like a broken in pair of jeans. We needed actors who could be fresh and alive, and also smart. What was most difficult was casting the role of Rita (the young bride). We didn’t find Cassie Beck until ten days before rehearsals because we spent so much time find exactly the right person. And seven of the actors are based in Boston and three from New York, which gives it a nice local feel.