A scene from Kalkwerk
(© Marek Gardulski)
A scene from Kalkwerk
(© Marek Gardulski)
The Lincoln Center Festival, which is now in its 14th year, has always distinguished itself with its dazzling variety of opera, music, dance, and theater; but the 2009 Festival, which runs July 7-26, is even richer than usual thanks to a special focus on the theater of Europe.

For example, past Festival favorites, like Russia's Maly Drama Theatre, France's Théâtre du Soleil, and Italy's kings of commedia dell'arte, Piccolo Teatro di Milano, are back with new offerings: respectively, Lev Dedin's Life and Fate; the two-part extravaganza Les Ephemeres; and Carlo Goldoni's three-part satire Trilogia Della Villegiatura. In addition, two of Hungary's most highly acclaimed companies, Katona József Theatre -- who are presenting Chekhov's Ivanov -- and Béla Pintér and Company -- who are offering Pinter's Peasant Opera -- are performing in New York for the first time, and the 228-year-old Narodowy Stary Teatr from Poland makes its Lincoln Center Festival debut with a production of the Austrian masterpiece, Kalkwerk.

"I have been intrigued by what's happening to theater in Europe -- especially in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet bloc," says the festival's artistic director Nigel Redden. "Obviously, for many people in the theater, they're positive changes. However, they come with some negative baggage." On the one hand, he notes, artists are so much freer to express their ideas. But most of these companies still operate under a classic ensemble system that often depends on state subsidies for their survival.

"Kalkwerk is a piece of monumental intensity and I'm totally bowled over by the way in which [director Krystian Lupa] manages to get these extraordinary performances out of actors with whom he's worked for the last 17 years," notes Redden. "It's difficult to maintain a company and to work with actors in the way that you could when there was a fair amount of state support. Those kinds of ensemble companies are from an era that may not last all that much longer. And I think it is particularly fascinating to see the results of this work."

Alexander Feklistov in Boris Godunov
(© Vladimir Vyatkin)
Alexander Feklistov in Boris Godunov
(© Vladimir Vyatkin)
An exception to the ensemble model is the Chekhov International Theatre Festival's production of Pushkin's Boris Godunov, helmed by the great British director Declan Donnellan. While Donnellan has worked with these actors before, it's not an ensemble company in the traditional sense -- especially as the director doesn't even speak the same language as his cast. Still, Donnellan finds the similarities with his Russian actors as striking as the differences. "The essential problems that actors face are the same regardless of the culture or language," says the director. "It is only the more peripheral, inessential elements -- such as the bureaucratic systems -- that differ. Directing in a foreign language is actually very liberating. At least then I'm less inclined to tell as many anecdotes. I have to get on with it!"

Redden and his staff travel all over the world to find the productions that are invited to Lincoln Center Festival. "Lincoln Center is a place where there's an enormous amount of activity that happens throughout the year, so it's a tricky question how to present something that will add to the mix rather than simply duplicate what's already going on here," says Redden. "Part of the idea of the Festival is to look at work at a certain scale. We're not, for the most part, working with very, very young artists or artists on an absolute fringe, because that's not what Lincoln Center is. The directors that we're inviting have a certain stature. We also look for a kind of classicism that goes back perhaps 400 years in Europe, back to Shakespeare, Monteverdi, and so on."

Donnellan, who is definitely a director of a certain stature, has his own perspective on this year's offerings. "'Foreign theater' can seem exotic, but what really matters is that it helps us share those things we hold in common, those precious ties that cannot be separated even by centuries of cultural difference," he says. "Theater helps us imagine what it is to be other people and helps us imagine and feel what another world may be like. None of us has a monopoly on truth. But we can recognize life together. We learn empathy, if we are lucky."