Teaming up allows Bridge Rep, as a new company, to do a much, much bigger show than we might ordinarily be able to do: we can offer our audiences a large ensemble piece like The Libertine, which would be beyond our reach otherwise.
The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys. Directed by Eric Tucker. Staged by the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston and the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston MA, through September 22.
by Tim Jackson
The Arts Fuse review of the production here
Boston’s fledgling Bridge Repertory Theater and New York’s Playhouse Creatures Theatre have come together to produce The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys, a play about the notorious John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. He was a major English poet of the seventeenth century as well as a womanizer, drinker, atheist, pornographer, and libertine. The script centers on his relationship and affair with the actress Elizabeth Barry. Jeffreys also wrote the screenplay for a 2004 film version of The Libertine (starring Johnny Depp) that received less than favorable reviews, partly because of its unrelentingly dark tone. This collaborative production deals with Jeffreys’ initial treatment of Wilmot’s adventures as a flamboyant comedy, a poetic and risqué meditation on privileged lives of decadence, flamboyance, and giant wigs in the omni-sexual court of Charles II.
I spoke with the artistic directors of both companies, Bridge Rep’s Olivia D’ Ambrosio, (who plays Elizabeth Barry) and Playhouse Creatures’ Joseph Rodriguez (who takes on the role of Wilmont, the Earl of Rochester), about the advantages of collaboration and about the historical background of the play, which is seeing its Boston debut.
Arts Fuse: How did your two theater companies, one from New York, and one from Boston come to collaborate on this particular production?
Joseph Rodriguez: To begin with, in New York it’s a lot more expensive to find performance space. If you’re a small company, a home space is almost out of the question. So like many companies at our level, we are a peripatetic company. We move around from venue to venue based on the production.
Olivia D’Ambrosio: When I lived in New York I worked at a health club where Joseph was a member and that’s how we came to be friends. It was about the time he began putting his company together. Joe and several of the members of the company used to live in Boston. Then after I moved here, we got back in touch. He learned that I had started the Bridge Rep Theater Company, and told me that his company had staged this show, The Libertine, which they had put a lot of work into and which had gotten great reviews, but it had too short a run because the costs were so prohibitive. He asked what would I think about putting it up in Boston?
JR: I also thought there were a lot of wonderful roles in it for Olivia, her company, and for other Boston actors as well. It is so much more affordable to do theater here in Boston. Creating theater in New York is mostly about paying for stage space. Also, Olivia was determined to create a company that was primarily Actors Equity (working under a union contract), which is much more difficult to do on a smaller level in New York.
OD: Teaming up also allows Bridge Rep, as a new company, to do a much, much bigger show than we might ordinarily be able to do: we can offer our audiences a large ensemble piece like this, which would be beyond our reach otherwise. It’s exciting and it fulfills part of our mission, which is to work with other artists and to provide professional opportunities for Equity artists in Boston.
In terms of the re-staging, Playhouse Creatures came with the costumes, wigs, and some of the actors, as well as the staging idea of the panels, which are using. But it should not be seen as a remounting of the original production. Our director, Eric Tucker, really allowed each of us find our own approach.
JR: For Eric, who’s a member of our company as well, it was important that this be a completely new piece and to discover it through this collaboration. Previously it had been staged with only eight actors. This time we are able to do it with 13 actors. This version is much more evolved and much more complex.
AF: The play itself is based on actual historical figures and events
OD: That’s right. Even the “Dildo Song,” which starts the second act.
JR: The lyrics to that song are the exact words that John Wilmot wrote for that song in his epic poem, Sodom. All the poems I speak in the play are his poems.
OD: Elizabeth Barry, Lady Malet, Jane Roberts, who was a famous prostitute, and of course, King Charles II, are all actual people.
AF: Amazing as the story is, I was not familiar with most of these figures.
OD: They may be familiar to people who have read about this time period. Many of these figures appeared in the play and film Stage Beauty. But I think many members of the audience will be unaware that these people actually existed.
AF: Did you research these characters and the history in order to develop the characters?
OD: I certainly didn’t watch the film version. I wanted to discover Elizabeth Barry. Her story in some ways intersects with my life story as a young woman trying to make her way in the theater, and in the world, and who wants to do it on her own merits. This is exactly where I find myself with Bridge Rep. So I built that role right from my life. In rehearsal we explored new approaches to the relationships. Some of the qualities you bring to the part, others are given to you by your colleagues, others are found through discovery. That’s one reason why this collaboration is such a pleasure, particularly with Eric Tucker, who is such a great director.
JR: As for the movie, my major criticism is that it was so relentlessly dark and joyless. The thing I love about the play is that there is so much comedy in the struggle of these characters to find some kind of meaning in their lives, even if it is just a pleasurable way to pass the time. That was one of Rochester/Wilmot’s greatest struggles. They were all so bored. They were trying to find ways to fill the empty hours, as they put it. And hopefully we make that come alive on stage, and with much comedy.
AF: And it is unexpectedly bawdy and risqué.
OD: I love a good historical play and what’s appealing about this play is its opulence and his rawness, as well as the simplicity of the space. In this time period, there was a strange undercurrent of dirtiness. I love that historical aspect. The relationship between Rochester and the women are timeless.
JR: Some of the female characters are beautifully drawn. Jeffreys, the playwright, did a beautiful job developing some really strong women.
OD: Rochester, libertine that he was, self-destructed because he wanted so much out of life that he couldn’t find satisfaction, as a result, he indulged in excess to the point of ending his own life. That’s not something that’s gone away in human nature. Setting it in the past lets us see that this drive as a timeless part of the human condition. I never feel like I’m doing a historical piece. It feels just like a contemporary play.
JR: As our director says, Rochester is the archetypal fading rock star.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970’s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980’s. He has directed two documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. He is currently finishing a third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane with whom he has worked for 30 years. You can read more of his work on his blog.