American Repertory Theater: Cambridge, Massachusetts
In 1980, Robert Brustein, then Artistic Director of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, introduced me to twenty-three year old Harvard undergraduate named Peter Sellars. A rather unusual production of King Lear, which Peter had staged around gold Lincoln Continental, brought him to Robert Brustein’s attention.
Since that time, Peter Sellars has directed nearly one hundred productions; of these I designed fifty representing more than half of his directorial output. The Inspector General was our first collaboration.
Some years after we did The Inspector General, we both admitted that we had grave doubts about each other’s abilities when we first met. In the three years since I had graduated from Yale School of Drama in 1977 I had been fortunate to work with celebrated directors. Amongst these were two critically acclaimed Romanian directors, Liviu Ciulei and Andrei Serban. My work had been seen at such prestigious venues as The Guthrie Theater, one of the finest of American regional theaters, as well as at equally praised Arena Stage Theater in Washington D.C. And here I was asked to design costumes for an undergraduate whose clever talk was somewhat off-putting. Peter on the other hand, after seeing my portfolio of costume designs, silently wondered how he would be able to work with someone whose work was so tiresome and predictable (I think another word he used was “bourgeois”).
For our next meeting, I was accompanied by scene designer Adrianne Lobel, also a recent graduate of Yale School of Drama. I remember the two of us commiserating about having to work with “wonder boy”. Peter did not miss a step and rushed us into a screening of 1932 German movie of The Inspector General (with no sub-titles).This was more instructive but the doubts went away when we finally had Peter’s translation/adaptation of Gogol’s play. It was, simply put, brilliant.
The production which was not over-abundantly budgeted, was nevertheless, enormously satisfying, if challenging project. Even during these early years, Peter was not interested in period costumes. It’s not that he was not interested in them; it’s that he hated them. Consequently, I had the opportunity to create a look that was in some way, vaguely reminiscent of Russia in early 1840s, but consisted entirely of contemporary or semi-contemporary clothing adapted to our needs.
The Inspector General is usually described as being satirical. It is not a comedy, though parts of it are hilarious. It has dark undertones of absurdity that Peter’s adaptation emphasized. It satirizes corruption, vanity, and stupidity. Corruption, vanity, and stupidity are not really funny; they are dangerous. Our own lives are continually twisted and harmed by corruption, vanity, and stupidity.
The cast of The Inspector General was exceptional. The role of Khlestakov, the main character, was played by actor Mark Lynn Baker, who went on to become a successful film and television actor, as well as director. The production was a great critical success. Both Adrianne and I worked with Peter Sellars on many subsequent productions.
Next production, Iphigenie en Tauride.