“Eric tends to be attracted to dark, poetic worlds.”
Matthew Gardiner is directing Tender Napalm at Signature Theatre, where he is the Associate Artistic Director. I began our conversation about the play, which previews this week, by asking Gardiner how it had come to his attention. “Eric found it,” he replied, referring to Signature’s founding Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer.
Schaeffer was in London working on the British premiere of his Broadway success Million Dollar Quartet when Tender Napalm was running there to critical acclaim. Although Schaeffer wasn’t able to see the play, what he heard about it intrigued him enough that he “got his hands on the script, and he found it so compelling, so unique and fresh and innovative. He was compelled by the relationship of the central characters and by the use of language.”
Best known, of course, for productions of classic as well as new musicals, Signature has from the beginning balanced its seasons with straight plays. Gardiner explained that the primary focus on musicals has created an inclination toward plays that involve “a non-realistic form of story-telling. We tend to be drawn to pieces like this.” He used, as an example, the recent production of Crave by Sarah Kane, though he made clear that he wasn’t comparing the two as plays, but only using Crave as an example of a similar aesthetic. Early Signature audiences will remember the Brad Fraser plays of the 1990s which also fit this broad description.
Gardiner, for his part, had, while in college, read The Pitchfork Disney, the best-known previous play by Tender Napalm author Philip Ridley. That play was tremendously successful for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in the 1990s. When Schaeffer brought the newer Ridley play to Gardiner’s attention, “I, at first, didn’t relate the two plays; I didn’t realize they were written by the same person. After I read Tender Napalm, fell in love with it, and began to do research on it, I became aware” that both plays were written by Ridley, who is also a filmmaker. Gardiner continued to familiarize himself with Ridley’s work by watching Ridley’s 2009 film Heartless.
The two-character play that was the subject for our conversation focuses on the relationship between a woman and a man. (The Signature production features Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir.) The production in New York in 2011, according to The New York Times review, was intensely physical, and critic Ben Brantley attributed the production’s success to the director and to the choreographer with whom the director worked.
“It’s all me,” Gardiner told me when I asked if his production also had a choreographer. “Movement is one of the reasons Eric thought of me for the piece. I’m attracted to the physical. And that’s what drew me to the piece initially; that’s within my wheelhouse.” He described how the language became more his focus. “I was more involved with the physical at first.” Ultimately, he determined that the core of the play was more “about language, creating images and ideas through language.” As a result, “the physical takes on aspects of language as well.”
Although the characters exist in a somewhat ambivalent world, with the audience having to decide which of them to believe about what, and even where exactly they are, they are Londoners, specifically East-Enders. I asked if Gardiner had changed the characters’ background, and he said no. The language is “so specifically British. I’ve heard of other productions who remove that. I’m not sure how that would work.”
Brantley’s Times review also made much of the intimacy of the experience. Gardiner’s production is “in the round, very intimate, there’s only three rows on any side — the audience will be close and intimate.” The piece will play in Signature’s smaller space, The Ark, which has only 110 seats. Set Designer Luciana Stecconi, Gardiner told me, “has done a miraculous job of transforming The Ark.” The set “doesn’t give you any specific idea of any realistic place.” But it is “different, evocative, and poetic. It’s more than just a painted floor.”
Gardiner said that “it’s a busy Spring for me.” Tender Napalm opens on Tuesday, April 1. “The same day, I start rehearsals for The Threepenny Opera,” Gardiner’s next project for Signature.
I couldn’t resist telling him about my indelible experience of seeing that great Brecht-Weill masterpiece when avant garde icon Richard Foreman directed it during the Joseph Papp/New York Shakespeare Festival residence at Lincoln Center. I was in college on a weekend trip to NYC, and that was what I most wanted to see. I went to the TKTS booth and saw it on the board. I was told that all the seats they had were obstructed-view. I bit the bullet and bought the ticket. (I’m sure it cost significantly less than ten dollars.) Well, my seat was front row center, and the obstruction was a railing that couldn’t have been more than an inch think. From the moment “Mack the Knife” began and Off-Off Broadway favorite Tony Azito began moving like I’d never seen anyone move on a stage, I was mesmerized. By the time Raul Julia and Ellen Greene led the “Second Threepenny Finale,” I was in theatrical heaven.
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Gardiner told me, “You’re the first person who has said to me that they saw that production.” Or any successful production. What he has heard a lot is “‘I love Threepenny, but I’ve never seen a production that works.’ That’s a little terrifying.”
My great friend Jane Lowenthal went back even further with 3P. She was one of those devoted New Yorkers who loved the city and who knew everything that was happening on the arts scene — dance, music, visual art, and, of course, theatre. Her first night in the city, as she arrived to attend Barnard College, was spent seeing Fred and Adele Astaire in The Band Wagon and, she would tell me, she knew that night that New York City was where she wanted to be. She would tell me stories of seeing Shakespearean productions directed by Orson Welles, Bert Lahr in Waiting for Godot, and Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera, to which she took her teenage son George.
As I remember Jane telling me how much they both loved it, it occurs to me that Gardiner’s challenge won’t be mounting a successful production of The Threepenny Opera, but rather mounting one that will be satisfying to contemporary audiences, who are different from the throngs who made the productions at Theatre de Lys in the 1950s and at the Vivian Beaumont in the 1970s long-running hits. We live in a different world, and it will be fascinating to see how or if 21st Century audiences (and critics) react differently than did mid-20th Century audiences (and critics).
I asked Gardiner who’s in his cast, and he mentioned Erin Driscoll, Bobby Smith, Donna Miglaccio, Natascia Diaz, and Rick Hammerly. And which of them will be holding the jackknife — that is, who is playing Macheath? “I’m not allowed to say.” Is this some sort of superstition, like not saying “Macbeth” in a theatre? No, the choice is just not ready for publication.
I then asked about Gardiner’s path to his current position, and he told me about taking the Overture Summer Theatre Intensive, a program that Signature provides for students. “I was very close at the time with Jane Pesci-Townsend. She was a mentor to me and my brother.” Pesci-Townsend, as most readers of this article will know, was a beloved performer and teacher who unfortunately died young in 2010, having left an unforgettable impression on audiences, colleagues, and students. “She taught my brother and me voice. We met her doing BAPA (Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts) when we were eight or nine and became close to her then.” Later, Gardiner assisted her when she directed The Last Five Years at MetroStage. Gardiner’s twin brother James is a well-known and busy actor around town and the librettist for the Broadway musical Glory Days.
Pesci-Townsend was running the Overture program “with Eric and Karma Camp. She convinced me to do the program to meet Eric.” Gardiner wasn’t interested in acting and singing — “it was pretty obvious I was there to meet Eric.” During under-grad work at Carnegie-Mellon, Gardiner spent his breaks assistant-directing for Schaeffer. About the time Signature opened its current space, Gardiner graduated and Schaeffer created the position of Resident Assistant Director for him. This evolved into Resident Director and, eventually, the current title of Associate Artistic Director.
Gardiner continued, “My brother and I started professionally when we were six.” For Matthew, it was in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free for All production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Carter Barron, starring Paul Winfield as Falstaff. For James, it was in The Cunning Little Vixen at The Washington Opera. Matthew continued, “I understudied Tiny Tim and played Ignorance in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre.”
The brothers Gardiner began so young. Was there an experience that was a catalyst propelling both into theatre careers? “When we were five, we saw my cousin’s school production of The Wiz, with an all-white cast. It sent my brother and me into an obsession with theatre. We thought it was the greatest thing.” A couple of months after that, their parents, aware of the incongruence of an all-white Wiz, took them to a national tour that starred the original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, and “our minds were blown. This was even better!”
One of the reasons I paid such close attention to The New York Times review of Tender Napalm when it first appeared is that the play’s New York production had a DC connection. It was produced by a group called The Shop. That group’s Artistic Director and the director of the production was Paul Takacs. Paul will be remembered by DC audiences from the 1990s, when he appeared frequently on our stages, including Washington Shakespeare Company (his Cloten in Cymbeline was a particular favorite of mine), SCENA Theatre (he and I appeared there together in a trio of Pinter one-acts), Olney Theatre Center, Folger Theatre, and Signature Theatre, where he played Joe Pitt in Angels in America.
It is at Signature now where Tender Napalm will run until May 11 (giving you plenty of opportunity to see the play, despite the limited capacity of the smaller Ark space) and where The Threepenny Opera opens on April 22. By my count, that means that there will be three weeks when Matthew Gardiner will have two shows running at once.
Impressive, though he will have had to wait until he is in his 30s to achieve that feat. Gardiner, who is 29, has a birthday on April 3rd.