To see real artistic enthusiasm without pretentious affectations is refreshingly welcome in the performing arts. Brian Kulick displays passion for his current project, The Age of Iron, through his fine melding of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Thomas Heywood’s Iron Age. Kulick is currently in his seventh season as Artistic Director of Classic Stage Company, where his productions have included The Tempest, Richard II, Richard III, Hamlet, and Anne Carson’s critically acclaimed adaptation of An Oresteia. I talked with Brian Kulick about his thoughts on both Elizabethan and contemporary theater, as well as his current production, The Age of Iron, running at CSC through December 13.
Kulick states The Age of Iron originated when he read an actor’s backstage cheat sheet from an elaborate Henslowe play called Troy. Troy was performed at London’s Rose Theatre (1587-1605), complete with a model Trojan horse. Research shows that the production was immensely popular, creating an audience for Trojan War plays and spawning many knockoffs. The only two plays from this “sub-genre” of Elizabethan theater to survive to the present day are Shakespeare’s and Heywood’s. Kulick hypothesizes that Heywood may have been in the audience of a Troilus and Cressida performance, or may have even read a Quarto. (Heywood was Cambridge educated and had success from his 1602 play, A Woman Killed With Kindness, but his main goal was to create work, not preserve it by printing.) Kulick found many similarities in the works beyond pure subject matter: “When I read both of them, I was shocked by how much these two works were in dialogue with one another, or rather how much the Heywood was in dialogue with the Shakespeare. The two fit together like missing pieces of an elaborate theatrical jigsaw puzzle.” The two texts fit so well that while on a bus between Boston and New York City, Kulick just started cutting and pasting the scripts together.
He freely admits that Shakespeare has the advantage over Heywood; the interaction of the two works is like “watching two people play chess,” but Shakespeare wins nine times out of ten. It really is no contest, since Heywood was playing to an unlettered crowd, “an audience of Ajaxes,” if you will. As Kulick points out, Shakespeare had recently completed Hamlet, and so the “acute poeticism” is on full throttle, forcing slight trimmings where Shakespeare’s text becomes too obtuse to function on stage. Kulick took the advantages of each play into consideration when mapping out his piece: “The adaptation favors Heywood’s grand historical sweep, but also adheres to Shakespeare’s sense of detail, character, and thematic development.”
By bookending Shakespeare with Heywood, Kulick takes the audience from the beginning of the War to the end. This offers scope and emphasizes the duration of the war, which Shakespeare doesn’t utilize: “I think it is immensely helpful for a modern audience to understand the story of Troilus and Cressida in context with the mythic seduction of Helen and Paris. When viewed in this context, one can see how Shakespeare complexifies and subverts this myth and gives us a more ambiguous and ultimately more human account.” Kulick emphasizes that Elizabethan theater could reflect the self-critiquing society of the time, making it an extraordinary time in theater for a culture that asked vital, fundamental questions. Kulick points out, however, that Shakespeare reigns supreme in bringing the ambiguities and ambivalence of the human experience to the stage.
“Modernity breeds ambiguity,” Kulick notes, and his vision of this adaptation does not shy from tough questions about war, love, loyalty, and other universals. Kulick praises his cast for the collaborative process, the project evolving in rehearsal and “continually articulat[ing]” itself. With no real leading role, the “constellation of artists” he has gathered could mold the piece to the group and its collective strengths. The experience of collaborating with the actors on this project was, according to Kulick, “more like [working on] Pinter than Shakespeare,” as the cast dove into the subtext, which is not always apparent at first glance. The seduction of Cressida and Diomedes popped up as an example, where indecision is shown at face value, but the scene still requires thoughtful staging and an inner monologue.
The speech that Ulysses makes to Achilles also lends itself to closer examination, as Kulick compares the wise orator to Hamlet’s extremely vocal and eloquent inner consciousness, telling him not to fear taking action. He also relates the Ulysses and Achilles dynamic to discussions between Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, as Krishna urges his young friend to enter the battle rather than hesitate. Ulysses’ clear-eyed rationalism makes him steady and wizened, as Kulick imagines him to have been “exiled from Eden, awake and aware,” waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
Kulick knows about entering a fray with no reservations; being an Associate Director at the Trinity and the Public did little for the reality of his current position at CSC. He likens it to being an uncle versus a father, an experience that you can witness but will never know until it happens to you. I suspect Kulick loves his job, as he lights up at the opportunity to talk about creating a community—a home for audiences and artists to experience art together. He calls directing “world-building” and views his artistic director mantle with the same idea, though on a larger, more tangible scale. Brian Kulick has shown himself to be a master builder of all kinds of worlds—worlds that I greatly anticipate, this season and beyond.
The Age of Iron runs November 6 – December 13 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003. Information can be found at http://www.classicstage.org.