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Keen Intellect

Director Carl Forsman on the Keen Company revival of Tina Howe's Museum. logo
Carl Forsman
Ask Carl Forsman why he's taking on the not inconsiderable challenge of Museum, Tina Howe's 40-character slice-of-life take on the contemporary art world, and the answer comes without the slightest pause. "Tina Howe has gotten the rawest deal in American theater," says Forsman, artistic director of the two-year-old Keen Company--and he says it with the kind of passion usually reserved for theater directors and people under 35. "I think she's too avant-garde for the mainstream and too mainstream for the avant-garde and so she's been unfairly neglected."

Indeed, Howe--best known for Painting Churches and for Coastal Disturbances, which introduced a young actress named Annette Bening--has had little attention from New York's major theater companies. "If you had told me when I was a student at Middlebury College that Signature [Theatre] would spend 10 years doing seasons devoted to a single playwright and that Tina wouldn't be included--actually, I find it appalling that they never did a white woman--I would've giggled," says Forsman.

Middlebury is where Forsman first read Museum, which premiered in 1978 at the New York Shakespeare Festival featuring a cast of then little-known actors including Dianne Wiest, Larry Bryggman, Kathryn Grody, Bruce McGill, and Dan Hedaya. Set on the final day of a major contemporary art exhibit called "The Broken Silence," the show's characters are a cross-section of society, from museum guards and freelance photographers to overseas visitors, jaded New Yorkers, and even one of the artists. Forsman was so enthralled with the play that he asked to do it as his senior thesis. The answer from Middlebury, however, was no. "I think they thought it was too big and perhaps a little too silly. But that always stuck in my craw," he notes.

Now the timing is right, says Forsman, whose production opened on June 7 and continues through June 30 at the Connelly Theater in the East Village. "It's not only a play about art, it's about connection and loneliness," the director states. "And there's nothing more New York than that, especially after September 11." It helps that he and Keen have a bit of a high profile: Forsman's production of Conor McPherson's one-person monologue The Good Thief earned star Brian d'Arcy James an Obie last year, and Forsman's direction of last fall's revival of John Van Druten's The Voice of The Turtle resulted in his being nominated for a 2002 Drama Desk award in such celebrated company as Howard Davies, Richard Eyre, and eventual winner Mary Zimmerman. (Forsman was out shopping for lighting for Museum when the nominations were announced.)

After deciding to tackle Museum, Forsman began doing research and consulting with Howe. The two spent over two hours at the Whitney Biennial (which was the inspiration for the play), and then Forsman took the entire cast and crew of 30 back to explore the exhibit. "We traded 30 tickets to our show for 30 tickets to the museum," he notes.

Getting to know Howe has slightly changed his outlook on the play, Forsman explains. "A lot of people see Museum as a satire of contemporary art, but Tina loves and believes in art too much to actually satirize it," he says. "When she was a child, her mother used to tell her and her brother to go play at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they did. Plus, there's a naiveté in the play and in Tina that fits right in with Keen's mission. The company has always been about sincerity, generosity of spirit. I think Tina, like me, basically believes that people are good."

While the play could easily be updated, Forsman has chosen to keep it in 1975, the year it was written. "There a number of reasons why I am doing it as a period piece," he says. "First, the nature of contemporary art has changed in the past 25 years; there's a lot more digital and multimedia art and that would be hard for us to do. And I think that giving it the distance of 25 years helps. Back then, everyone spent a lot of time speculating on who the characters were based on. I didn't want the play to become caricature; I worked hard with the actors to give the characters more gravitas." And there is one other distinct advantage to the period piece approach: "The clothes are a lot funnier! But we had to import all the costumes from Pennsylvania and Ohio; to buy them here would have been too expensive."

Kate Hampton and Jimonn Cole in Tina Howe's Museum
(Photo: Eden Kellner)
In previous productions, the cast of Museum has numbered as high as 40 and as "few" as 18. Forsman opted for 21; for Keen, that's a quantum leap from The Good Thief and the three-character Voice of the Turtle. To assemble his cast, Forsman mixed old friends and Keen newcomers. He did, however, get one refusal. "The first person I called when I decided to do the play was Robyn Goodman," he relates, "not only because she's a good friend of the company but because she did the play originally. I asked her if she wanted to do it again and she just laughed."

Forsman's commitment to "neglected" playwrights began when he was literary manager of Blue Light, the celeb-studded theater company founded by Greg Naughton. "After we had such a big success with [Clifford] Odets' Golden Boy, I started to look at other ensemble pieces of the period for the company," he notes. "Although I consider myself very well read, I had never really read the work of Sidney Kingsley or S.N. Behrman. But when I suggested them to Blue Light, they thought the work was too naïve. Then, when they let me go, I thought it was time to put up or shut up, so I directed Behrman's The Second Man." Forsman's next project after Museum is to revive an even lesser known work: Gertrude Tonkonogy's 1933 comedy Three-Cornered Moon, which is remembered (if at all) as a vehicle for the late, great Ruth Gordon. "It's about a Brooklyn family during the Depression who loses everything," says Forsman. "To me, it's sort of a female You Can't Take It With You."

Come winter, Forsman will briefly leave New York to direct Marivaux's Successful Strategies at Southern Methodist University in Texas. After that, who knows? "I love doing genre pieces," he enthuses. "I badly want to do an Agatha Christie play; I have my eye on either The Hollow or The Unexpected Guest. And I am dying to do a musical. When I went back to teach at Middlebury, I directed the works of a French playwright named Scribe--he was the guy Ibsen was rebelling against--and I might do one of his plays here."

While he is firmly committed to Keen, Forsman wouldn't mind also directing for a bigger company, especially since he'd enjoy working with a bigger budget. But, wherever he may go, his philosophy is sure to follow. "The prevailing idea in theater today is that cynicism equals sophistication, and I find that offensive," says Forsman. "I don't think being optimistic means that you're simple-minded."


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