Rob Melrose is artistic director of the Cutting Ball Theater, which often stages experimental productions of classic works. To open the company's 2011-12 season, Melrose chose a classic that most people haven't heard of: Pelleas and Melisande, by Maurice Maeterlinck, pioneer of the Symbolist movement.
We talked with Melrose, who is directing his own, new translation of the play, about defying the theater world's preference for realism and updating Pelleas and Melisande, "a fairy tale for adults," for contemporary audiences.
How did you become interested in Maeterlinck?
I was doing my thesis at Princeton on Chekhov's The Seagull. You know Konstantin does a play-within-a-play in the first act, and a lot of the scholarship I had read said this play is definitely either an homage to Maeterlinck or a send-up of his work. That got me excited about Maeterlinck, so I started reading his plays. I read Pelleas and Melisande, and I was blown away. I just loved it. And I actually love Konstantin's play-within-a-play in The Seagull.
Even though it looks so silly when Chekhov's characters stage it?
I do! I think Chekhov had to have admired it on some level because he let it take up so much stage time. I think he knows that it can be mocked, and he mocks it of course, but I think there's something he admires about it. And of course his director, Stanislavsky, and the actor who played Konstantin, Meyerhold, spent the rest of their careers trying to find a performance style for Maeterlinck.
They were obsessed by his work. It's so funny; most people have never heard of Maeterlinck. He's kind of an unknown writer today, but he won the Nobel Prize; he influenced Chekhov, Strindberg, and Beckett; and he affected the music of Debussy, Schoenberg, Faure, and Sibelius. He's definitely worth revisiting.
Why don't theaters revisit his work that often?
We can find the answer right in the middle of The Seagull. It might be that realism became so popular and so much the norm, and anything that wasn't realism could be thought of as silly or pretentious. It's all right there in The Seagull, that Arkadina and Trigorin think it's ridiculous that Konstantin is doing this spiritual kind of work.
And I know this from running an experimental theater company, that it's easy to make fun of experimental work. Realistic work is much safer. It's much easier to understand. Maeterlinck's work gets into a mystical and spiritual realm that some people may not like, but I think it's kind of beautiful. I'm not overly spiritual myself, but I still have a great appreciation for the kind of other world he describes. It goes back to Plato's idea that this world is just a shadow of a more interesting world that's somehow behind it.
Why did you write your own translation?
I started directing by directing my own plays. So then in working with other writers, I just found that when you translate a play, it's such good preparation for directing. You really understand why every word is there. So now whenever a play I want to direct is in French or German, which I speak, I try to translate it first. It's a good exercise.
What was your focus in this translation?
The English language changes really, really fast, especially American English. We have so many immigrant communities, and we love slang. But French is almost the opposite. The French have L'Académie Française, and they keep portmanteau words out of the language. So while English changes really fast, French sounds very much the same, especially Maeterlinck's French, because he uses this narrow band of words. He repeats himself a lot, so I had to decide which repetitions to keep and which to smooth out. There's nothing really old-timey about the play itself, and I wanted the language to reflect that.
Maeterlinck famously wrote, "I do not write for ordinary actors. I believe that poems die the moment they are outwardly expressed." How do you stage someone who seems happy with, even insistent on, being kept on the page?
It's been great having Laura Arrington choreograph. It's amazing how fun and intense the rehearsals are, because the scenes are actually pretty juicy. First of all, how fun is it to do a scene in which a man discovers a beautiful woman crying next to a spring in a gorgeous, torn, formal dress the middle of forest? It's an awesome thing to play.
And then the scenes with Pelleas and his brother's wife are great because Maeterlink is so focused on the soul. Their relationship never really becomes carnal, but the desire is there. They keep actively fighting it, and Laura's been making it all very physical. When they finally kiss, it's a big release. "They kiss frantically," in fact, is what the stage directions say.
This play seems to be a designer's paradise. What are the visuals like?
Everybody's job is a little bit different. Different designers place their work on different places in the real-abstract continuum, so I've been trying to get everybody in the right tune. With the choreography, we decided to let it be both real and symbolic.
Then above the stage, we've got 13 veils through which video -- which Wesley Cabral is doing -- is projected. But the video is just used for atmosphere, not to advance the story. Then for music, our composer Cliff Caruthers is evoking the sound of water, the sound of bubbles. When most people think of music, they think of violins, instruments. But his work is electronic music, so he can create that.
Pelleas and Melisande continues through Nov. 27 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), S.F. Admission is $10-$50.