Not entirely surprising for someone who has spent much of his career in new play development, Much Ado marks Esbjornson's first venture with Shakespeare -- not counting two student productions early in his career. Even during his six-year stint as artistic director of New York's Classic Stage Company, he focused mainly on modern riffs on the classics. Esbjornson had very clear ideas for his first professional Shakespeare production and his debut at the Delacorte. "I felt that the Park was this magical place that celebrates theater in the summer and, if I was going to work in that venue, I would really like to do a comedy," he says. "But I don't like all the comedies. I wanted to do something that also has a kind of darkness in it. I like Much Ado because it has such great complexity of tone."
Much Ado has elements of traditional comedy -- bumbling officials, sparring protagonists (Beatrice and Benedick, here played by Kristen Johnston and Jimmy Smits) who are tricked into discovering that they are actually in love with each other -- but you are never quite sure if all will end well. "There are also these rogue characters, like Don John [the Iago-like malcontent brother of the Prince], who infiltrate and change the comedy into something darker and more difficult," says Esbjornson -- "and then Shakespeare rescues it at the last minute. I thought that collision was so interesting and not easy to achieve. It felt like the right kind of challenge.
"I always think about a play in relationship to its venue," Esbjornson continues. "The space really informs how one does a play and clearly informs the audience's experience with it." He explains how, earlier this spring, the production of The Normal Heart -- Larry Kramer's angry denunciation of the apathy of public officials in the early years of the AIDS crisis -- was augmented by the three-quarter staging in the Public's Anspacher Theater: "It created this feeling of tight claustrophobia with an audience all around it, and that allowed the explosions that were happening psychologically in the actors to really fill the room." For Much Ado, in contrast, Esbjornson opted to exploit the open-air features of the Delacorte to the max.
After looking at different locations and ideas for staging the play, he decided to examine Messina, Sicily -- Shakespeare's setting for the story. "As I began to research it, I realized that there is no better place for this play to take place," he says. "It is a completely isolated island yet, at the same time, it has been occupied more than any other place on the planet by different armies and governments. It contains a Mafioso element where the notions of revenge and honor really make a lot of sense. It is continuously rocked by earthquakes, so the seismic shifts that are represented in the writing also make sense. This is an environment where things would be pleasant one minute and completely destructive the next."
Esbjornson says that he was able to adapt the Sicilian setting very well to his Delacorte production by staging the few potentially interior scenes into exteriors. "The public space is a very important part of Italian culture," he notes. "There is something about the palazzo, the Italian square, that feeling of people dragging their chairs and their tables outside and eating outside. Everybody knows everybody else's business. It feels right for this play in which people are constantly eavesdropping; they are part of the intrigue and the drama and the misunderstanding."
In order to intrepret the play for a modern audience, Esbjornson has set his production in the early part of the 20th century. "One of the things about Italy is that it hardly seems to change in certain ways," he explains. "You look at pictures from the turn of the century and pictures from 1940 and you can see almost the same images and silhouettes and landscapes. I wanted to set the action at a time when Shakespeare still felt like it resonated but not so far in the past that people wouldn't recognize it."
Much Ado officially opens tonight and Esbjornson will soon begin work on his next project, the opening play in the Signature Theatre Company's season-long tribute to Pulitzer Prize-wining playwright Paula Vogel. The director will once again be drawing on his proven talent for shepherding new work: The Oldest Profession, Vogel's play about five ageing prostitutes in the Reagan era, has been produced before but is being reworked for its New York premiere in September. That process is clearly something this director relishes, even if his last such experience was less than satisfactory.
"I am not particularly interested in pointing fingers or blaming people," he says of the ill-fated Bobbi Boland. "My feeling is that, ultimately, I didn't get to finish the work. I think that, on Broadway, there is a level of panic about things in process. I would love to have seen the production that I had in my mind." Esbjornson explains that rehearsals were delayed due to star Farrah Fawcett's scheduling conflicts: "We were playing catch-up in rehearsal and doing a lot of rewriting, so we would have liked to have had our previews. That's all we were asking as artists. I still want to do the play but I think it's unlikely at this point that it will happen."
Be it Miller, Albee, Kramer, or Shakespeare, Esbjornson says his goal is to "remain sensitive to the differences in each voice. That's what I love about directing," he enthuses. "Most good playwriting has a kind of energy that tends to come from language and character, and there are very few good writers who don't have a sense of humor. I guess I've always felt that human behavior, even at its darkest, is absurd -- or, at least, ironic. I think the best dramatic writing employs humor and the best comedies have shades of darkness in them. That seems to be a common denominator in much of the work I've done."