Thursday, December 28, 2006

After The Onion Cellar, let's shed a tear for Robert Woodruff

The cast of The Onion Cellar - photo by Karen Snyder

Word reaches us that the ART has announced Robert Woodruff will be stepping down as Artistic Director. And he's doing it soon - at the end of his contract this season, in fact.

Rumors had been flying for months about efforts to oust Woodruff, and it was easy to think of reasons why Harvard might be eager to be rid of him. Certainly he had up-ended the basic concept of the ART as an avant-garde repertory house. Instead, Woodruff envisioned it as host for a kind of Soho Celebrity Series, with the acting company pared down to a nub, and the spotlight focused on visiting directors and productions.

As these plans bore fruit, it became clear that Woodruff's own direction was usually compelling (even when it was undermined by bohemian naivete, as in Olly's Prison and Orpheus X), and that many of the visiting productions he presented (including the far side of the moon, The Syringa Tree, and Pieter-Dirk Uys) were truly brilliant. The trouble was that the visiting shows outshone the local ones; even the best of the directors Woodruff brought in (such as Neil Bartlett) rarely pulled together the remnants of the company into a compelling vision (which essentially blew a hole in Woodruff's M.O). And the bombs (Amerika, Three Sisters, and now the notoriously troubled Onion Cellar) began piling up, the translations (by resident dramaturg Gideon Lester) grew less and less inspired, the drag queens got bitchier, and the rock music kept getting louder. What's more, it was clear that at some level Woodruff had turned his back on both the actor and the playwright - and really, how long could a theater expect to exist without either of those contributors?

Of course perhaps Woodruff, after five years in the confines of Cambridge, simply yearned to return to Greenwich Village (I think he never gave up his home there). Perhaps the rumors were just that - rumors. In my view, he'll leave a mixed legacy at the ART - and mixed in the worst way, in that his policies undercut the theater's long-term viability. Still, I'd have to admit that moment-to-moment, he kept the ART more interesting than founder Robert Brustein ever did (that is, after the brilliant season or two that saw The King Stag and Six Characters In Search of An Author).

The question of the hour, of course, is whither the ART? Should the theater rebuild its acting company? Should it hew to more "traditional" modes of presentation? Should it concentrate on new playwriting voices rather than new directorial talents? No doubt these and similar thoughts will be on the minds of many in the theater community this spring.

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