Jesse Berger: Jacobean Ladder; the Director Is Taking 17th-Century Drama to the Next Level

By Weisman, Wendy | American Theatre, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Jesse Berger: Jacobean Ladder; the Director Is Taking 17th-Century Drama to the Next Level


Weisman, Wendy, American Theatre


To all theatregoers about to succumb to the urge to nap during a performance: Jesse Berger has got your number. While cataloging what he sees as threats to the vitality of his art form, this otherwise affable 36-year-old indicts the most seemingly mundane of culprits: plush auditorium seating. "Too comfortable," he laments. A lot of directors hell-bent on introducing audiences to unfamiliar playwrights might cite obstacles like resources, fundraising and marketing--but furniture?

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Berger isn't really out to replace those newly renovated auditorium seats with wooden pews, but he does want theatre leaders to think differently about their performance spaces. His discontent isn't directed at chairs so much as what he views as a proliferation of cushy, antiseptic venues that mimic the comforts of the modern Cineplex, disengage audience members from the performances and--worse yet--lull them to sleep. Detached audiences represent a particularly fatal liability in his line of work: reviving the lesser-known, heightened-language dramas of the 17th century. To Berger, these plays demand total engagement on a level that audiences raised on a diet of mass media are unaccustomed to.

A consummate Shakespearean, Berger is a protege of both Michael Kahn and Garland Wright. He began his professional career as an apprentice to Wright at Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater in the early '90s, following an acting scholarship at Southern Utah University. Berger then honed his skills as Kahn's associate director at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company and as a U.S. Directing Fellow at Shakespeare's Globe in London. He was also selected, in 2004, for the NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Directors. Now calling New York City home, he sustains an active freelance career, taking on directing projects ranging from I Am My Own Wife at Pittsburgh Public Theater to Othello at San Diego's Old Globe, and spreads his passion for the grandiloquent verbiage of the Bard's lesser-known contemporaries through his own company, Red Bull Theater. Juliet's balcony scene and Hamlet's soliloquy are iconic in the public imagination, but how many non-theatre majors would recognize a reference to the works of Middleton, Kyd, Webster or Jonson--playwrights who influenced or borrowed from Shakespeare?

At least a few more now would than before 2003, when Red Bull's inaugural production of Pericles elicited both an impressive seven-week run and critical plaudits for the play's stylized otherworldliness. The enthusiastic reception to this underperformed work of Shakespeare served as a springboard to a reading series and enabled Berger to enlist a willing army of collaborators for his Jacobean wish list. The "Revelation Readings" series drew an illustrious list of participants, including Kate Burton, Amy Irving, Dana Ivey, Paul Rudd, T. Ryder Smith and James Urbaniak. Actor Laila Robins, who took part in Middleton's Women Beware Women for Red Bull, likens the Revelation Readings to the oratorical equivalent of the Olympics--the challenge is decoding the dense language. "Can I make sense of this quickly?" she asks herself. "Can I jump over the hurdle?" (And where else might Robins or her listeners run across titles like A Chaste Maid in Cheapside or Sir Fopling Flutter?)

Such dramaturgical evocations are for naught, of course, if the language doesn't resonate with contemporary audiences. To Berger's surprise, the company's mailing list grew explosively after he announced his next Red Bull production, The Revenger's Tragedy, a selection that piqued the curiosity of an eclectic mix of theatre professionals, scholars and returning fans. Word quickly spread about Berger's approach to this earliest of black comedies, a gruesome tale of amorality at the Venetian court. The play's startling union of comic indulgence and arrant brutality, combined with Berger's purposefully decadent aesthetic, captured the attention of downtown audiences, and the run was extended by several weeks.

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