'Not understanding is really satisfying': A director keeps you thinking

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'Not understanding is really satisfying': A director keeps you thinking
James Vincent Meredith as Mr. Antrobus (with his family’s pet dinosaur) during a rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York on March 31, 2022. Blain-Cruz, who specializes in aesthetically daring new plays, is making her Broadway directing debut. Richard Termine/The New York Times.

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

NEW YORK, NY.- The first thing that gets you is the laugh. It can pop up like a jack-in-the-box or tumble out in waves in the midst of conversation with director Lileana Blain-Cruz, who is making her Broadway directing debut with an ambitious revival of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The distinctive Blain-Cruz guffaw doesn’t always punctuate obvious jokes. It can also lighten a heavy thought or prune a thorny moment, as when she refers to “the existential crisis I go through on each production,” or talks about her advocacy for the underappreciated role of the director in the American theater, a cause she’s well positioned to advance as a resident director at LCT.

Then there are the voices she slips into, as if she’s starring in a perpetual one-person show: the pretentious aesthete with thoughts on the “thee-a-tuh”; the salty skeptic (“What does that mean?”); the spoiled child (“I want more shows in the Beaumont — it’s all mine, mine, mine!”).

Neither her laugh nor her dramatis personae are merely for entertainment, though. Blain-Cruz does not tend to direct comedies but instead specializes in aesthetically daring new plays (Lucas Hnath’s “Red Speedo” at New York Theater Workshop in 2016, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole” at LCT in 2019, Alice Birch’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2020) and similarly experimental revivals such as Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Death of the Last Black in the Whole Entire World” at Signature Theater in 2016 and María Irene Fornés’ “Fefu and Her Friends” at Theater for a New Audience in 2019.

In other words, that light touch is in the service of a thoroughgoing theatrical vision, what Blain-Cruz calls a “minimalist maximalist aesthetic, a kind of cleanliness and explosion at the same time.” You could see it in the alternating spareness and density of her intense 2016 production at Soho Rep of Alice Birch’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.,” or in the vivid flip book of styles and settings she and her team of designers and performers conjured for the promenade production of “Fefu.”

Montana Levi Blanco, the costume designer for “The Skin of Our Teeth” and a frequent Blain-Cruz collaborator, calls her “a master of curating chaos,” putting an equal emphasis on both the curation and the chaos. “It’s not just about bravado and spectacle,” he clarified. In Act 2 of “Skin,” set on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, for example, there may be “a 12-foot show girl,” but, Blanco said of Blain-Cruz, “I promise you that she is much more interested in the sex worker lurking in the back, or the person sleeping under a tree.”

A fan of staging party scenes (“My natural habitat!” she declaimed with mock hauteur), Blain-Cruz, 37, traced her affinity for multilayered storytelling to an unlikely source.

“One of the books I loved so much as a kid was ‘Where’s Waldo?’,” she said in an interview between rehearsals. “I loved it, because it was like 17 million stories happening on a page of illustration, all while you were looking for that singular character. It was literally an act of participation.”

A shared engagement in deciphering meaning is something Blain-Cruz seeks not only for her collaborators but also for her audiences, and that too is rooted in early consumption of plays and films.

“I saw a lot of things that I didn’t understand but I loved,” said Blain-Cruz, who was raised in both Queens and Miami, and for whom a midnight screening of the bonkers 1970 cult film “El Topo” was as formative as the plays of Caryl Churchill and Ntozake Shange. “I think the experience of not understanding is really satisfying to me.”

It’s not that she sets out to confuse audiences but to “incite their feeling of participation in the event — that they’re actively thinking and working as we’re experiencing it.” In many productions, she said, “Everything is provided, and you just watch people sit back and get bored because they get ahead of it, or because nothing is actually happening.”

Lack of incident is not a problem with Wilder’s 1942 play, an oddball pageant of the earth’s natural history as told through a single, ageless nuclear family, the Antrobuses, who weather everything from an ice age to world wars. “Skin” is also a fourth-wall-breaking meta-play in which some cast members revolt, only to be replaced by backstage workers reading from scripts. As Gabby Beans, the actor playing the maid Sabina, put it, “This family is going through apocalypse after apocalypse, but also the play is falling apart.”

“Skin” has had two short-lived Broadway revivals, as well as a more acclaimed staging at Shakespeare in the Park in 1998. With a large cast and three wildly different acts, it’s hardly a minor undertaking; the current company has 28 actors and elaborate puppets by James Ortiz. But it was precisely the play’s large scale, as much as its depiction of cycles of collapse and human perseverance, that LCT’s leaders felt made “Skin” a resonant, sneakily timely choice. (The show, now in previews, is set to open April 25.)

“She brought it up to me many, many months ago, and I wasn’t quite sure,” André Bishop, LCT’s artistic director, confessed. “A few months later, I read it again, and I realized how of the moment it was. It was the kind of play that could have been written yesterday,” he added, calling its theme “the ability for humans to survive cataclysms.”

Blain-Cruz said she finds in Wilder’s play “the insanity that we’ve been trying to find some way of expressing, without being on the nose about it.” One thread she’s drawing out, reflecting another cycle of American, not to mention human, history: The Antrobuses in the new “Skin” are Black, not white.

“I was interested in understanding the reference points of where this was coming from,” she said of retaining the play’s grounding in mid-20th-century archetypes and settings, even as she relishes “the surrealism of watching a Black family in this environment, which we don’t get to see very often.”

But the purported absurdism is more than merely playful. “Placing the question of human survival on a Black family just lifts the stakes so much, because we felt that precariousness for so long, and we still feel it today,” she said. “It’s not, ‘Will I make it?’ It is literally, ‘Will we survive under all of this never-ending pressure?’ That feels really powerful for this moment — that this family can contain those feelings and that pain in such a specific way that it again becomes universal as we all question our survival.”

This casting idea inspired her to bring in playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. They have known each other since their undergraduate days at Princeton, and she directed his play “War” at LCT in 2016. Jacobs-Jenkins and Blain-Cruz have been granted permission by the Wilder estate to make small tweaks to the text, not in a spirit of revision or adaptation but simply “to acknowledge that some of the language in the play is going to read with maybe unintended irony when spoken by people of color,” Jacobs-Jenkins said. References to Mr. Antrobus as “master” have been changed, for instance, and a third-act litany of quotations from ancient texts have been expanded beyond Homer and Genesis to include a passage from a sacred Hindu text.

For her part, Blain-Cruz eagerly embraces the opportunity and responsibility of being the first resident director of color at one of the nation’s largest theaters, a post that she has held since the fall of 2020 and which guarantees her at least one production there per season. (She is only the fourth Black director to work on the company’s Broadway stage since its start in 1985, and with Dominique Morisseau’s 2017 play “Pipeline,” the first Black director to work on their off-Broadway stage, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, since Mbongeni Ngema, with “Sarafina!,” in 1987.)

It did not escape her notice that, though she had directed at LCT three times before, the offer to become a resident director came after the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent release of the “We See You, White American Theater” document that led many theaters to hire Black associates.

“It seems pretty clear,” she said, that her hiring was part of that wave. But, she noted, “Placing me in a resident director position is a commitment that is real and will manifest inside of the work.” Speaking more broadly, she said, “This has been called a racial reckoning. Nothing has been solved yet, but there is an awareness and a kind of plain, open speaking of what used to only be spoken behind closed doors with particular groups of people. I think that shift is significant.”

She continued: “The question now is, what will the future bring? We are literally looking at a play about the cycles of history. Are we going to circle back around again to the same old [stuff], or are we going to move forward?”

Seen in the light of cycles of history, Blain-Cruz’s much-noted bubbly approach to her work may have a deeper significance. It’s not simply that as set designer Adam Rigg puts it, “The goofiness and joy and play she brings into the room fortifies you for how rigorous she is — it totally makes the rigor possible, so you’re much more open to the large ideas and the large challenges of the kind of design she yearns for.” Or that, as Drury put it, “There’s a lot of fighting embarrassment when you’re doing theater, and her ability to laugh at herself helps you get out of your own head and makes you less afraid to try an idea.”

It is also this: Carving out room for people of color to make work on a large scale is “a little bit political,” Blain-Cruz said. “We deserve a space that is joyous! I’m speaking particularly for Black and brown folks who have been working in this field for a long time and have had traumatizing experiences. The space to experience silliness, love and tenderness — I bring that to my rehearsals not only as a work ethic, but also a hope for the way I want the world to work. That for me is liberation. Right? When people feel free to create together.”

She slipped into a character voice as she described the gateway moment when, as a 10-year-old, she attended “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera next door.

“I was a little kid, running into the theater like, What is this? The spectacle of it, the largeness of it, was always really inspiring.” While she has since directed some operas (not at the Met, though) and a musical about Miriam Makeba, “Dreaming Zenzile,” which begins performances next month at New York Theater Workshop, “Skin” at LCT is clearly Blain-Cruz’s biggest show.

“I get very excited and also terrified. I’m like, ‘OK, I have it. Do I have it? Am I going to do it? I’ve got to do it big.” She followed this moment of self-coaching with — what else? — a hearty laugh.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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