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A Midsummer Night's Scheme

Stanford Summer Theatre brings in need-blind admission.

Katie Pfeiffer

A TASTE OF WIT: Kostopoulos, Bihr
and Sarah Moser in Freed’s Restoration Comedy, opening July 27.

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By Cynthia Haven

A long-married man reminisces with his wife about the night they met—where they were, what she wore, the streets they walked. She remembers, too, but differently. Perhaps, she suggests, he is recalling “another night, another girl.”

A wealthy businessman, complacent and magnanimous, takes a beggar into his home. But the beggar is an arsonist, one of a team determined to burn down the homes of the rich.

And somewhere in Athens, a young wife stops buffing her nails and decides to stop a war.

Welcome to the Stanford Summer Theatre, now in its eighth year. These three snapshots recall past offerings: Harold Pinter’s sketch Night, part of the 2005 Pinter Festival; Max Frisch’s postwar Biedermann and the Firebugs, performed in 2002; and artist-in-residence Amy Freed’s modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in 2003.

Freed’s work is featured again in this summer’s festival, Wicked Wit: Rakes and Rebellion in the Restoration. She directs her play Restoration Comedy, a retelling of two late-17th-century classics, Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and John Vanbrugh’s Relapse, or Virtue in Danger. The Pigott Theater production, running July 27 through August 13, stars Jenn Erdmann and Stanford lecturers Jeffrey Bihr and Kay Kostopoulos in a familiar tale where a long-abandoned wife, in disguise, lures her philandering husband back into the marriage bed. A rare production of Molière’s Don Juan (one of the playwright’s uncharacteristic ventures into prose) follows in the Prosser Theater from August 17 through August 27. As always, the festival features a concurrent film series and a daylong symposium, combining education with entertainment.

But there’s a new twist this year. According to a press release, “To rival the deviance and delights of the [Restoration] period, SST inaugurates its own form of theatrical debauchery: Pay what you like for any performance! SST is now priceless!” The notion has met with some success in the alternative theater scene.

“The idea is to reinvigorate the idea of theatergoing, and to try to draw in those who simply wouldn’t or don’t think of going to the theater—ever,” says drama and classics professor Rush Rehm, PhD ’85. “The idea is to attract new audiences, and keep the loyal followers.”

Rehm is the theater’s originator and director. Ed Iskandar, ’04, co-director of this year’s festival and director of Don Juan, describes Rehm as “obsessively detailed and compulsively brilliant—the kind of exacting collaborator that you need to keep the net taut around the unharnessed potential of a production.”

“Rush is trying to do something wonderful here—get live theater on campus,” says Freed, a Pulitzer finalist who wrote Freedomland and The Beard of Avon. “It’s a big undertaking,” she says, but an important one. “The theater in America right now is under such pressure economically and commercially that it may not survive unless universities step up to the plate. I’m a passionate believer that we should be doing something at Stanford.” Freed points to the disappearance of smaller Equity theaters: she remembers five or six when she came to the Bay Area in the 1980s; they’re gone now.

Rehm has worked to fill the gap. While planning the season in 2000, he was surprised to learn that  Waiting for Godot hadn’t been performed in the Bay Area for more than a decade. Samuel Beckett is “the greatest 20th-century playwright, so he asks to be done,” Rehm asserts. He took advantage of an exceptional configuration of talent available that summer—Bay Area actor Geoff Hoyle, the Polish actor Jarek Truszczynski, LeCoq-trained Geoff Sobelle, ’98, and director Aleksandra Wolska—and played Pozzo himself, demonstrating another talent.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in the academic world who is such a fine actor,” Freed says. “He has that rare combination of great intellectual passion and a full-hearted emotional and theatrical instinct.”

Last year’s festival broke new ground as perhaps the only occasion when Pinter’s work as a playwright, screenwriter, actor and political activist have been considered together. The timing seemed prescient: within a few months, the playwright received the Nobel Prize for literature.

Pinter responded warmly to Rehm’s choice in a letter. “I’m moved to know that you’re embarking on this Festival. It’s also good to know that you exist! We clearly have a great deal in common.” (An activist, like Pinter, Rehm spent time in a Santa Clara jail following his participation in a 2003 war protest.)

Rehm took a somewhat circuitous route to both theater and political activism. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone and grew up in Peru, Maryland, Alabama, Florida, Texas, California, Washington, D.C., and the Netherlands. “My father and his father were career military men, so I was raised all over.”

An Army ROTC scholarship brought Rehm to Princeton, where he became political, he says. “I realized I didn’t have a clue about the colonial history of Vietnam, or much else beside, including U.S. imperialism, so I dropped my ROTC scholarship at end of second year and became quite active in the antiwar movement,” which had him speaking at many East Coast colleges.

He clearly had tons of energy—his nickname “Rush” (short for Maurice) is telling—but how to channel it? He wanted to be a football player and even played it freshman year “without much success.” Then he took up pottery, becoming assistant to the master ceramist Toshiko Takaezu. The ’60s were exciting times for Princeton’s creative arts programs: an “artistic explosion” brought Toshiko there, as well as dancer/choreographer Ze’eva Cohen.

Eventually Rehm became involved in theater through the classics. “My interest in the classics happened to be the plays in English. That led to me learning to read the plays in Greek, then to translate from the Greek.” His senior thesis was a translation of Euripides’ Electra, and he went on to classical studies in Melbourne, Australia, with Fulbright and Sachs scholarships.

Rehm connects everything, including the Greeks, to his political interests. In Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy and the Modern World (Duckworth, 2003), he writes: “The 1991 Gulf War may have seemed to Americans like a video game, and to postmodern theorists like a virtual campaign, but not to the 200,000 Iraqi conscripts mowed down by the ‘turkey shoot into the desert,’ nor to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died since because of the US-driven sanctions. . . . Greek tragedy reminds us that humans live real lives (the only ones we have) and die real deaths, no matter how hard we try to deny it. Those hard truths provide the inspiration for tragic performance.”

He’ll have a hard time bringing politics into the bawdy world of Restoration comedy—or will he? Freed points out the feminist dimension: this was the first time women were seen on the stage. They were “wonderful women—articulate, sexy, amoral. Innately, the theater was the celebration of women,” she says.

And this year’s name-your-own-price policy strikes a democratic blow in a world where ticket prices are skyrocketing, audiences dwindling and theaters disappearing. “All one can do is hope,” Rehm says about the future of theater. “Maybe if we hold onto it and don’t sell it out, others will come and support it.”

CYNTHIA HAVEN, a frequent Showcase contributor, edited Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2006).

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