Bart DeLorenzo — From Cymbeline to Coney Island

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The cast of "Cymbeline"

“The way to become a director is simply to tell people you are one,” says award-winning L.A. director Bart DeLorenzo. Easy, huh? Not exactly. He goes on to explain that it takes a really long time to learn how to be a director, and in order to learn, you have to do it. So, to get jobs, you have to say you’re a director before you know what you’re doing. Not easy””gutsy. Every few years, DeLorenzo looks back and thinks, “Oh, god, I really didn’t know what I was doing five years ago.” It is safe to say that DeLorenzo now does know what he’s doing.

Sitting in the mid-century-modern lobby at A Noise Within’s new Pasadena home, where he is directing Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, DeLorenzo laughs about finally knowing how to direct. He sounds both proud and almost embarrassed as he says, “I have the award that proves it.”

In June, he was honored by Theatre Communications Group (TCG) with the Alan Schneider Directing Award, which is given to an exceptional director who is not yet known nationally. He was nominated by Ron Sossi and Beth Hogan of the Odyssey Theatre, where he has directed Ivanov, Margo Veil, The Receptionist, Day Drinkers and A Number, the first three of which were co-productions with DeLorenzo’s company Evidence Room.


Bart DeLorenzo. Courtesy of Bart DeLorenzo

In his TCG acceptance speech, DeLorenzo credited his father with teaching him by example to “never to do anything for a living that you don’t love.” DeLorenzo recalls the tangible evidence of it, sleeping in his father’s childhood bedroom under a squadron of toy airplanes hanging from the ceiling. His father became a Navy pilot and later flew commercial jets for American Airlines.

DeLorenzo was born in Spain, where his father was stationed, then moved to south Texas, where his mother was from, and later to his father’s hometown of Duxbury, Massachusetts. His father’s airline job gave the family ample opportunity to travel, which they did — to England, Italy, the Caribbean, and lots of U.S. cities. He fell in love with Los Angeles during several trips to Disneyland. Traveling allowed DeLorenzo to think about where he wanted to be, showed him that there was indeed a choice. And he chose L.A.

DeLorenzo thanks South Coast Repertory’s (SCR) associate artistic director John Glore for starting his free-lance career. DeLorenzo sent letters to larger L.A. theaters (“back when people still wrote letters”) expressing interest in directing, but got little response. In 2005, Glore named DeLorenzo’s Evidence Room production of David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy as one of his favorites of the year, in a comment to the Los Angeles Times. From there sprung a series of meetings at and then invitations to SCR. First he directed a reading of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s King of Shadows, then a reading of Donald MarguliesShipwrecked! An Entertainment ““ The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself) for the 2007 Pacific Playwrights Festival which went on to a full production at SCR and a revival at the Geffen Playhouse. Most recently, DeLorenzo directed three short plays, including Glore’s one-act What She Found There, for SCR’s Acting Intensive Program showcase. He was honored to be asked to direct Glore’s play and called it “one of the most brilliant one-acts I’ve ever read.”

Melody Butiu and Gregory Itzin in the 2007 South Coast Repertory production of "Shipwrecked!" Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

DeLorenzo refers to Margulies as his angel, and an angel for others, as well. “There’s no other way to describe him except as a angel.” DeLorenzo brims with sincerity and appreciation. Margulies, he believes, took a chance on him with Shipwrecked! and the playwright’s trust and well-placed words cemented the director’s place at SCR and elsewhere. “I think everyone will agree, he [Margulies] is a much better human being than I am,” DeLorenzo admits. “He has a good family and I’m sure he’s an excellent teacher and I’m sure he has a very neat office and he dresses impeccably and he’s always very kind, and I’m messier in every possible way.”

Coming soon

In spite of their professed differences””or perhaps because of them”” DeLorenzo is working with Margulies again. The Geffen’s late producting director Gil Cates (“another one of my favorite people on the planet,” says DeLorenzo) commissioned Margulies to write a Christmas play for the Geffen. As DeLorenzo heard the story, Margulies warned Cates that if he wrote a Christmas play, it would be a “Jewish Christmas play,” to which Cates replied, “Even better.”

Francia DiMase in "Cymbeline"

The resulting play, Coney Island Christmas, is based on a short story by Grace Paley. It takes place in the 1930s, in Brooklyn, New York, where a young Jewish girl is cast in the school Christmas play as Jesus, because she has a loud voice. DeLorenzo loves this play””you can hear it in his voice. “It celebrates Christmas as an American holiday, and really””despite Thanksgiving’s claims””as the most American of all holidays. It’s a fantastic new myth for Christmas.”

DeLorenzo has directed two workshop readings of Coney Island Christmas, and nearly all the actors in the upcoming production appeared in one or both workshops. DeLorenzo is thrilled with his cast and his creative team, but after two text-based workshops, he is, perhaps, most excited to stage the play’s two pageants. He’s giddy, practically bouncing in the chair, as he explains that the play has a Christmas pageant and a Thanksgiving pageant. But first he must tackle the equally theatrical Cymbeline.

Now playing

Cymbeline is not a popular Shakespeare play. You probably didn’t read it in high school, and unless you took an all-Shakespeare course in college, you may not have read it then. It isn’t produced very often, so you could be completely unfamiliar with it. This is why DeLorenzo likes it.

Helen Sadler and Time Winters

DeLorenzo has always been attracted to the lesser-known classics (in high school he directed In the Zone by Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee’s American Dream), because he loves telling a new story””one the audience is unfamiliar with. He notes that directors are often criticized for “taking liberties” with classic plays. DeLorenzo, on the other hand, applauds them. “Please take liberties””take as many liberties as you want!” he pleads. “I’ve seen the normal one I don’t know how many times.” He explains that when he watches a traditional Hamlet, for example, DeLorenzo finds himself “ticking off the scenes” as it goes, a laundry list of familiar and obligatory moments, instead of becoming immersed in the story. “Oh my god,” he mock-laments, “he still has to go to England.”

So is he taking liberties with Cymbeline? Well, it is the third longest of the Bard’s plays, so he has cut it down. But you probably haven’t seen it a dozen times already, so by his reasoning, he doesn’t need to do crazy new things with it. It will be new and exciting enough as it is.

All grown up

Cymbeline is quite an adventure,” DeLorenzo explains. It comes toward the end of Shakespeare’s career””all the major tragedies are done””and it contains situations and character dynamics from King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry V, Winter’s Tale, and As You Like It, as well as Snow White and Goldilocks, too. Where it could be seen as a hodgepodge of ideas that worked in the past””a greatest hits rehash””DeLorenzo sees Cymbeline as a remarkable and mature play. He explains that Shakespeare takes all these elements and masterfully works the play to the point of bursting. Tragedy is ready to spill out all over the stage, and indeed might have earlier in his life. Instead, Shakespeare unravels it all to a happy ending.

Joel Swetow. Photo courtesy of Joel Swetow.

ANW company member (since 1991) Joel Swetow agrees. He credits a college professor with pointing out that Cymbeline was written by the greatest playwright in the English language at the height of his career, so perhaps we should “assume Shakespeare kinda maybe knew what he was doing and figure out what he intended.” Swetow pulls out his iPad and opens an app called Rehearsal. He scrolls though the script to what he refers to as the “King Lear moment.” It is a scene in which Imogen kneels before Cymbeline, an image that invokes Cordelia kneeling before Lear. It is one of many moments that recall Shakespeare’s earlier works. “If you come to see Cymbeline,” Swetow says, “you get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in one night.”

“I think that it’s a play that is not easily categorized in terms of classic genre definitions within Shakespeare’s body of work,” explains ANW producing artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. “Seeing incarnations of various Shakespeare characters and themes is part of the fun of the piece. The charming world of fairy tale in which the play lives is filled with fantastical characters, includes lots of travel, and has a wonderfully improbable ending where everyone lives happily ever after. Bart’s approach to the production stresses all of that with a wonderful sense of humor about the proceedings.”

DeLorenzo has carried the tragic/comic theme into his casting of the play. In his cast of eight, most of the actors play both a light and a dark character. Swetow explains, for example, that he plays both Cymbeline, who is “full of rage and always making bad decisions,” and Philario — a “lovely, supportive Geppetto figure.” In addition, Swetow plays an “invented character” in one of the major battle scenes. No, DeLorenzo didn’t write any new lines, but when staging Shakespeare, Swetow says, “The question is how to have a war.”

Jarrett Sleeper and Adam Haas Hunter

All this doubling creates a bit of madness backstage. Swetow’s quickest costume change is 55 seconds and, he says, he barely makes it. And that’s not even the shortest one””someone else has a 15-second change. And we’re not talking about a simple hat and jacket change. Geographically, the play takes place in England and Italy. But chronologically, it seems to take place in Augustan Rome, Renaissance Italy, and 17th-century Wales. DeLorenzo chose to honor this strange mix through the costumes. Swetow gets to be a Renaissance king, an ancient Roman nobleman, and a “spirit of theater” wearing a tuxedo.

In fact, it is the odd tone of Cymbeline that attracted DeLorenzo to it. He finds its mix of tragic and comic elements interesting and truer to life. That, and its “outrageous theatricality” drew him to Cymbeline when Rodriguez-Elliott and her fellow producing artistic director Geoff Elliott approached him with a short-list of plays. They were designing the season around the theme of journeys, Rodriguez-Elliott explains, and were looking at Shakespeare’s late romances. She and Elliott were intrigued by DeLorenzo’s take on Cymbeline“”so the play ended up in the season. (A Noise Within also produced it in 2000,  near the end of the company’s ill-fated one-season move to the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State LA.)

Earlier in DeLorenzo’s career””particularly, he says, the Evidence Room days””he went through a “Tarantino period” when he was interested in “tough, nasty theater.” But, he says, “You reach a certain age and there’s a little bit of an eye roll””really, do they have to die? Does there have to be incest and murder? Isn’t there another way?””and also, what does this have to do with my life?” It is in this light that DeLorenzo sees Cymbeline. He feels Shakespeare is saying, “A comic resolution is a more profound ending than a tragic one.”

Jarrett Sleeper, Helen Sadler, Paul David Story, and Francia DiMase

There is a scene in act V that seems to have bothered critics at least as far back as George Bernard Shaw. The scene, which will not be detailed here so as not to spoil it for newbies, is both serious and comic, potentially to the point of camp. Although he originally described Cymbeline as “vulgar, foolish, offensive, indecent, and exasperating beyond all tolerance” (“Blaming the Bard,” 1896), 40 years later Shaw changed his mind. In the foreword to his 1936 Cymbeline Refinished, he admits, “my notion that [act five] is a cobbled-up pasticcio by other hands was an unpardonable stupidity,” and the scene in question is “just the thing to save the last act.”

So how is DeLorenzo handling this all-important scene? The director’s not giving anything away, except to tease us: “All I’ll say is Alan Mandell is involved.”

William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, 91107.  Opens Saturday, 8 pm. Sun Sept 30 2 pm, Sat Oct 6 at 2 and 8 pm, Sun Oct 7 at 2 and 7 pm, Thu-Fri Oct 25-26 8 pm, Sat Nov 3 8 pm, Sun Nov 4  2 pm, Sat Nov 10 2 pm, Fri Nov 16  8 pm, Sun Nov 18 2 pm. Tickets: $40-52. 626-356-3100.

***All Cymbeline production photos by Craig Schwartz

Rachel Fain

Rachel Fain