Posner at Home at Folger
Even though Aaron Posner has directed many plays in many American places, and written some, too. It must seem now as rehearsals get underway for his next production, that the Washington theater community has come to be a major part of his creative and professional as well as personal life.
Just now, the Folger Theatre, and its small, intimate, Bard-echoing Elizabethan theatre will take up a large space in his imagination and profession, as he directs “Romeo and Juliet” and embarks on the journey that will take Posner and his wife Erin Weaver, starring as Juliet, toward the Oct. 15 opening.
Posner has expended a good part of his directorial resume at the Folger, a place drenched and steeped in Shakespearean history, artifacts, scholarly work and productions of the Bard canon over decades. Posner sees all that, but he sees something else, too. The Folger is a place for risk taking and risk takers, a quality not usually associated with an institution so squarely placed in history.
You wouldn’t think so, if you visit the Folger Shakespeare Library, by the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress— the centers of political power in the United States. These are solid, Greco-Roman buildings as symbols of power and culture. The small Elizabethan theatre, with upstairs and downstairs seating looks like it was transported from the days when Shakespeare was writing his plays, complete with daunting pillars that always challenge directors, designers and actors. “I know people don’t often think of the Folger in terms of risk-taking, of edgy work, and projects that might be difficult to do, that are fresh and different,” Posner said. “But that’s exactly what happens here, there’s a willingness to say ‘All right, go ahead and do it that way,’ even if the idea sounds outrageous. There is a history here of saying yes to artists.” This was true before Posner began working his directorial magic here, when Joe Banno was directing some unusual takes on classic material— several actors including Holly Twyford performing the role of Hamlet for instance, and of course a “Romeo and Juliet” for which Twyford won a Helen Hayes award. The result for Posner has been an outstanding run of project and plays, including “A Conference of Birds”, based on a 12th-century Sufi poem about a group of birds searching for God. Posner was inspired by renowned director Peter Brook and his book “The Empty Stage”, in terms of how to do a play that was basically a series of parables. Even by Posner’s standards “Birds” was a different sort of play. It wasn’t that far removed from “Orestes: A Tragic Romp,” or even his “The Taming of the Shrew” which had frontier western setting, and won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Resident Play. At the Folger, Posner has also directed a new version of “Cyrano,” which he co-adapted and won a best director award, “The Comedy of Errors,” Tom Stoppard’s intellectual whiz-bang of a play “Arcadia,” “Macbeth,” which he codirected and co-conceived, “The Tempest” and “Measure for Measure” (this season being done at the Washington Shakespeare Company), which got Posner an outstanding director award and an outstanding resident production award for the Folger Theatre, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (another outstanding director award), and Craig Wright’s “Melissa Arctic” (based loosely on “A Winter’s Tale”) as well as “Twelfth Night,” “Othello”and “As You Like It,” going back to 2001.
“Romeo and Juliet” is probably Shakespeare’s most popular play, appealing to classicists and teenagers all at once, and Folger appears to be counting on that, scheduling a run through Dec. 1.
“Everybody knows the play, or thinks they know the play,” Posner said. “Everyone loves the romance, the passion, the tragedy of the lovers, and characters like the Friar and the nurse and Mercutio, it’s the language and poetry and all of that. But to me there’s something else. There’s a mystery in this play, and you have to solve it: how do these two young people—they’re teenagers, come to such a stark conclusion—they think and feel that they have no other choice except to die. That’s central to the play, you have to try to understand that decision.”
Posner’s wife Erin Weaver is taking on the role of Juliet. Posner finds the experience of directing his wife as essentially a sharing. “We don’t have a problem there, it’s a good thing in terms of our marriage, to be able to collaborate like this and share at a very basic level our work.”
Both Posner and Weaver worked together at Signature Theater earlier this year in “Last Five Years.” Weaver herself worked in “Company” at Signature, and earlier in “Xanadu” among many projects. The two have a young daughter named Maisie.
Birds seems to have been on Posner’s mind of late—in addition to “The “Conference of Birds,” his play “Stupid “F-----g Bird,” based not all that loosely on Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull,” received a powerful, funny and intense production at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. “There were similar characters, and similar interest and the play and Chekhov have always fascinated me.”
In this bird, as opposed to the other birds, Posner managed the not inconsiderable achievement of imaging, or re-imagining Chekov’s characters in our times, how they might have lived, sounded, and behaved today.
Posner’s gift is original in the sense that he has a taste for re-imagining, even re-invention. It shows up in his penchant for adapting literary works, without damaging them. He might shine a different light or lamp on the works, but they shine, and brightly, nonetheless.
DID YOU KNOW? Raised in Eugene, Oregon; born in Madison, Wisconsin Helen Hayes and Barrymore Award-winning playwright, director and teacher Previously accomplished director at Folger Theatre: One best director and two outstanding director awards Founder and former Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Has directed major regional theatres from coast to coast Quoted as saying “I can’t direct Shakespeare without swearing.”