Building a ’Bridge,’ Looking to Connect :: Olivia D’Ambrosio on ’The Libertine’
"Dangerous Liaisons" gave us the powdered wigs, but not the fleas. "The Libertine," by contrast, refuses to blink in the face of the hardships of life a few centuries ago -- challenges that no one, no matter how wealthy, witty, or influential, could escape.
In the case of John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), as so many others in human history, syphilis was a major health scourge. The disease slowly affected his mental and physical health, which might account for why the celebrated wit of the Restoration was also given to a profane literary slant and a socially self-destructive streak that saw him banished from London at least once. The ravages of the disease are a specter that hangs over the whole of Stephen Jeffreys’ play "The Libertine," a 1994 work that has never been produced in Boston... until now, thanks to the fledgeling Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston.
Bridge Rep, as the company is known for short, teamed up with Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company of New York for this production. As noted by the company’s Producing Artistic Director, Olivia D’Ambrosio, the result is some lively cross-pollination, resulting in a dynamic and complex play that unfolds before its audience like an intricate, but perfectly calibrated, machine.
"Unfolds" is almost literally the way to characterize this play, which uses a number of panels to create different environments, both interior and exterior. The cast whisk the panels about with terrific efficiency and economy of movement, which makes the level of expressiveness they achieve all the more memorable. The production generates excitement at every level, from text to staging, and from the array of finely wrought costumes to the richly composed light design.
EDGE caught up with D’Ambrosio recently for a quick chat about the play, Bridge Rep, and bringing just a taste of The Big Apple to The Bean.
EDGE: This play has never before been performed in Boston... why not?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: There are a lot of places it hasn’t been performed, and I think it’s largely because it’s a very daunting play to produce. It requires a very large and expensive cast. Depending on how you stage it, it requires, potentially, many ornate and expensive costumes. It can be technically difficult to execute, and it also might, I think, have a lot of competition with other heightened texts, like Shakespeare or the Greeks, that are better known. In the balance, it maybe falls to the wayside.
So there are a lot of places it hasn’t been produced, which is part of the fun of bringing it here and sharing it with our audiences, letting them have maybe their first experience with it.
EDGE: There’s a 2004 movie based on the play -- Jeffreys adapted his own script into the screenplay. Did you reference the film at all in preparing for the Boston production?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: I’ve never watched the movie. I didn’t want to get thrown by seeing somebody else’s interpretation of my character. From what I understand, the movie’s pretty dark and though our play ultimately ends on a dark note, there’s a great deal of comedy that allows for that sort of fall to have more gravity to it.
EDGE: What attracted Bridge Rep to this work as their official inaugural production? -- You do refer to this production as Show One, Season One, despite having had a short play in an anthology and also putting on a full length production last season.
Olivia D’Ambrosio: We had what I call our ’prelude’ or our ’prologue’ back in March, which was "The Lover" by Harold Pinter. This show is headlining our first complete season, sort of our Chapter One.
It was actually the company we’re working with, Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company of New York -- they’re the ones who came to us with [the idea to produce ’The Libertine’]. I probably wouldn’t have picked this play on my own or even known about it, but the idea of collaborating with another company not only fits part of our mission so well, but also gave us the chance to do a much larger play than we would have been able to handle on our own.
Also, [we were interested] because this is a play that’s never been done in Boston, so that’s nice. And sort of selfishly, [I wanted to do it] because the female characters in it are so well drawn, and that’s not always the case! For all of those reasons together, I thought it seemed like a good ship to get on."
EDGE: And what is the mission for Bridge Rep?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: The mission statement in one word is "connect." But we have three layers of connection that we’re particularly interested in, and the first is our artistic aesthetic, which is to have a very spare, actor-driven, intimate aesthetic that directly connects an audience to the actors on stage.
The second layer of connection is to ensure a healthy theater community by connecting different groups of artists to work together, so in this instance we’re working with artists from New York City. We’re also interested in working with established Boston artists, like Karen MacDonald, who will be directing our fourth piece [later this season].
And then our third prong is to more holistically connect the theater to the community so that people see not only us, but also arts organizations in general as a source of pride and identity. I like to think of arts organizations as analogous to sports teams, and I wish that people could feel about their arts organizations the way they feel about the Red Sox or the Bruins. Be like, "That’s my theater. I care about that institution. It makes my city great."
EDGE: What are your 2013 audiences going to connect with or take from this play, which starts in 1685?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: I think it’s always a delight to see how we used to live. People love "Downton Abbey," they love stories that take place in Ancient Greece... There’s something about seeing where we came from that is endlessly fascinating, so there is that level to it. Also, as I’ve been working on the play, and the way we’ve staged it, the one element that really captures the opulence of that time are the beautifully detailed costumes.
Meanwhile, the staging and our space are very raw and dark and spare. That time period sort of had that veneer of being opulent and beautiful, but there was just a terribly undercurrent of dirtiness and corruption, and I’m not so sure that’s all gone away. I think we might be living again in an opulent time that has an undercurrent of disaster running through it.
The main character especially, his descent into deep, deep addiction and self destruction is pretty palpable. There’s also a lot of the raw sexuality of that time; it’s not really a family show.
In general, to see thirteen actors on stage is not a terribly common occurrence, especially not in an intimate space and there’s something awesome, in the real meaning of that word, to see thirteen vivid, alive, fit actors working together. It’s something I was thrilled to be able to bring to Boston.
EDGE: And you have some of Boston’s ace talent on board with you for this! I see you have Brooks Reeves as part of your cast.
Olivia D’Ambrosio: Brooks Reeves is so excellent. He and I did a play together in college and we hadn’t seen each other in ten years, and then suddenly he showed up -- and now he’s in our play! We’re working together again! Yes, he’s tremendously good.
EDGE: How did the two companies mesh when it came to working out who was going to take which roles?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: Playhouse Creatures did this play in New York, so they had already done it once. Though in the course of doing it with us, we really sort of re-imagined it and started from scratch, except for the costumes and the idea of using shifting panels to create the space, although we use them differently than they were using them in New York.
That being said, a couple of actors came with the show. Joseph Rodriguez [who plays Wilmot] came with the New York show; Eric Doss [who plays boisterous servant, Alcock] came in his role, and Sarah Koestner [who plays Rochester’s wife, Lady Malet], who is perhaps the most talented performer I have ever been on stage with, also came with them. And then they brought a newer member of their company to play Jane [a prostitute favored by Rochester]; her name is Megan O’Leary. She’s their associate artistic director and was also our props master. She’s wonderful.
Those four folks came with the play, and I seemed to fit well with my character [Lizzie Barry, an actress Rochester takes under his wing and promotes professionally], and other than that Joseph Rodriguez and I and Megan O’Leary and my associate McCaela Donovan [currently appearing in another period piece, ’One Man, Two Guvnors,’ set in 1963 and running at the Lyric Stage], we did the casting.
It’s been a pleasure to introduce so many new faces, including my own, to Boston. It was a tremendously rewarding part of this process, and I think it’s good for us. Cross-pollination is good. It keeps you on your toes to work with new people; you learn different things, and everyone wants to bring their A-game. It’s been great. I’ve loved it.
EDGE: Why did Playhouse Creatures approach Bridge Rep, in particular?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: It was sort of through a bunch of serendipitous events. I used to live in New York, and their producing artistic director, Joseph Rodriguez, and I met at the same health club. We found out we’re both actors, and he’d already started his company back then and had kept me in the loop. He went to BC law school before he became an actor, and one of his company members went to Emerson, and our director, Eric Tucker, has worked in Massachusetts quite a lot. So they all had these ties to Boston.
When Joseph discovered that I was living here and producing here, he thought it seemed like a good fit to do the show together and I said, "All right!"
EDGE: The production features a lot of members of both troupes wearing hats both on and off stage.
Olivia D’Ambrosio: Wearing the two hats of being in the play and being the head of our little company and being one of the producers of the show, has been really exhausting and really awesome and I’ve learned so much. And I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I probably wouldn’t have done it... but it’s been so great, and it’s been so smooth! The two companies working together has gone so splendidly and we’re thinking about maybe doing it again.
EDGE: You have an eclectic season lined up. You have a "home grown" play, "Not Jenny," written by a Boston playwright named MJ Halberstadt, who is also part of your company, and that’s going to be your next production after "The Libertine." And then you have an "immersive musical experience" you’ll be doing as your third production of the season... What does that mean, actually?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: The musical is "Hello, Again," by John Lachiusa, and we are going to stage it in a cabaret style so there is not a set audience space apart from the performance space. The performance will take place all around the audience. It’s a musical that consists of ten different vignettes, so it lends itself to that sort of movement. The audience will be inside the experience -- although, don’t worry! There will not be direct audience participation. But again it will follow this very spare, actor-driven aesthetic, where the immediate connection between the actors and the audience is what we’re hoping to capture.
EDGE: And as you mentioned, Karen MacDonald will direct your not-as-yet announced fourth project. How thrilled are you to have Karen MacDonald working with you?
Olivia D’Ambrosio: I am incredibly thrilled and humbled and excited! She’s such a pro, and I have so much respect for her. For her to see that we might be a place for her to exercise a different part of her artistry really makes me feel incredibly honored.
Several of us who started Bridge Rep worked with Karen at Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and that’s how we know her. When she approached us about maybe directing, we couldn’t believe it - our eyes got big like saucers! I’m just thrilled.
EDGE: Your web site is unbelievable -- you’ve really embraced the social media form of getting yourselves out there. I’ve never seen a theatre company’s site that offers blog postings with such well-made little videos about who you are and what you’re doing.
Olivia D’Ambrosio: I really have to give a shout out to Marc J. Franklin, who’s our director of social and multi-media, He did those trailers for us and they’re beautiful, and he’s also done our production photos for us, which are also beautiful, and he’s the man behind the Facebook and Twitter mask. Again, I want people to feel like they know us-- like we’re their hometown team. Yes!
The Libertine continues through September 22, 2013 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit visit this website.