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Anne Bogart and the SITI Company reckon with Marivaux

Anne Bogart is back. And this time she’s brought the SITI Company with her.

In 1989, Bogart directed Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño ( " Life Is a Dream " ) for the American Repertory Theatre, and she returned in 1990 to stage Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime. In the decade since then, she has weathered a tempestuous year as artistic director of Trinity Rep in Providence, served as president of Theatre Communications Group, been celebrated as a " modern master " in a festival of her work at Actors Theatre of Louisville, written a book about directing, and received tenure at Columbia University. But her most satisfying and sustained achievement began in 1992, when she founded what has become the SITI Company with world-renowned Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki.

After a nine-year absence from the ART — she directed the premiere of Paula Vogel’s Hot ’n’ Throbbing in 1994 — Bogart returns to Cambridge to direct La Dispute, a new translation by ART associate artistic director Gideon Lester of an 18th-century French comedy by Marivaux. The production includes 12 members of the SITI Company, as well as two veteran actors from New York, two ART company regulars, seven students in the ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, and a graduate student from Brandeis. A collective of actors, designers, and other theater professionals, the SITI Company makes its Boston-area debut in La Dispute and its first appearance anywhere near since a 1998 engagement at Portland Stage.

SITI (pronounced " city " ) stands for Saratoga International Theater Institute, and the name (unpacked) explains a lot. The company’s summer home is on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, where each June it offers a month-long workshop by day and develops new pieces of its own at night. Its roots are both American and Japanese; recent tours to London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Prague, Tel Aviv, and Tblisi have enabled it to broaden its international focus. At the core of SITI’s mission is the effort to institute a hybrid form of theater training that makes the presence of the actor on stage so potent and charged that it is " undismissable. "

That training, not easily summarized in a few words, combines two practices. Suzuki work entails a series of demanding physical studies that are centered on the lower body and oriented toward the sending and receiving of energy. The Viewpoints, derived from the vocabulary of postmodern dance, involves a set of improvisational exercises and games that broaden the actor’s awareness of time and space. If the Suzuki work is strict and rigorous and the Viewpoints is more playful and open, both challenge the actor to be in conscious, visceral contact with his or her surroundings at all times and to be ready to respond to those surroundings — to speak, to move, to act, to change — in an instant.

After 10 years of experimenting with these two disciplines and teaching them in workshops and classes around the world, the company is often asked what’s so special about them in combination. " It has something to do with being in rehearsal and a fearlessness in making choices, " says Barney O’Hanlon, who has been working with Bogart since 1986. " It is what makes us different, I think, from other people who have not worked with us. There is a presence, a listening and an activation, in rehearsal, and you just keep going and going and going, with physical choices, intellectual choices, spiritual, emotional. I think that the two trainings together are the fuel for that kind of presence in rehearsal. And if anybody sits back, it is dead in the water. "

The SITI training has been very much in evidence during rehearsals for La Dispute. Each rehearsal begins with an hour or more of Suzuki and Viewpoints work for the cast, SITI actors, ART actors, and acting students alike; among other things, this helps to establish a common vocabulary for working on the play. " It is not really the point whether they become excellent at Basic No. 1 [a Suzuki exercise], " says founding SITI member Kelly Maurer. " It is a way for all of us in a very short period of time to experience the larger company here. Not to talk about it. Not to come in the room and drink coffee and just say, ‘Good morning,’ but beyond that, to experience being on the stage together — as a way of coalescing. "

The emphasis on training also serves the company’s broader mission to create and perform original works for the stage. These pieces are first conceived by Bogart, as artistic director, and then created by the company over an extended period of research, investigation, experiment, and rehearsal. " I’m good at getting things started, " Bogart points out. " And these guys are great finishers. We complement each other in that way. " Together they have created a dozen new works, many of which examine a major 20th-century cultural figure, among them Leonard Bernstein (Score), Robert Rauschenberg (bobrauschenbergamerica), Virginia Woolf (Room), Orson Welles (War of the Worlds), Robert Wilson (Bob), Andy Warhol (Culture of Desire), and Marshall McLuhan (The Medium). Some of these are ensemble pieces; others are for a solo performer. Some have enlisted established playwrights to provide a working script; others have been fashioned out of documentary sources and the performers’ own writing. With the company, Bogart has even staged two Noël Coward comedies at Actors Theatre of Louisville and two operas at New York City Opera.

As a period comedy that premiered at the Comédie-Française in 1744 (and was withdrawn by Marivaux after only one performance), La Dispute is something of a departure for the SITI Company. Marivaux is famous for a delicate brand of comedy that often examines the first pangs of romantic love and the existential confusion that results. La Dispute focuses on the origin and gender of infidelity. Who is more faithful in love, Man or Woman? To answer this question, a philosophical aristocrat conducts an odd experiment in social engineering. Four newborn babies, two male and two female, have been raised in pastoral captivity, isolated from all society and from one another. In the play, these human guinea pigs, now naive adolescents, are introduced to each other, one at a time, so as to trigger a mathematical progression of conflicting emotions. The result is a ruthless anatomy of the relationship between eros and psyche.

In the ART/SITI production, the play’s move from innocence to experience is complicated by conceptual decisions regarding casting and the addition of a prologue. La Dispute’s quartet of young lovers will be played by four SITI actors who are old enough to be their characters’ parents. The choice is intentional. " I don’t think you can do it with 20-year-olds, " says Ellen Lauren, the company’s associate artistic director, who plays one of the young women, Églé. " I really don’t. I wouldn’t have said it so vehemently a month ago. The play is about all the mendacity and complexity that we take on like baggage as we grow in our world. The way we fuck ourselves and others in trying to negotiate the ego. It is not about playing at something. That is the hardest thing we are learning. Anne keeps using the word ‘actual.’ You’re trying to be as true as possible. "

By itself, La Dispute takes less than an hour to perform, but Bogart conceived the production with an extended prologue composed of a " suite of fragments " from other Marivaux plays woven together with a series of dances to be choreographed by O’Hanlon. At the first rehearsal, Bogart joked to those meeting the company for the first time that " the SITI Company has a habit of rehearsing all day and then going to the bar. I go to sleep. And the next day I come in and they say, ‘Anne, we’ve changed the entire play.’  " True to form, in the first week, a discussion arose among the actors about the prologue that led to a significant change. " The only reason to make a prologue is to increase the necessity of doing the play itself, " Maurer explains. " What we found in listening to the texts that had been chosen was that, although beautiful, they almost cancelled out the necessity to hear La Dispute. " So though the idea and the shape of the prologue have remained, the spoken elements were scrapped.

The development exemplifies the SITI Company’s collective approach to artistic decisions and the members’ commitment to an honest confrontation with the material, even when it occasions inconvenient changes. They use rehearsal not only to " build " the play but to " find " it, like the sculptor who chisels away at a block of stone to remove everything that is not the work of art. " Is this anything? " one will say in the midst of working on a scene, turning to colleagues on the sidelines for feedback and fresh ideas. " Is it A or is it B? " another will ask and then demonstrate two possibilities for a particular moment. A significant voice in the discussions that follow always comes from the company’s sound designer, Darron West, who attends every rehearsal in order to develop a sound score that will function almost like another actor in the ensemble.

The company’s methods are so collaborative that if you entered the room at the wrong moment, you would not guess that the woman with the thick ponytail sitting quietly on a stool is the play’s director. " I don’t believe that a production has a director or a designer or a dramaturg, " says Bogart, who places a high premium on listening. " These are functions that are shared, to a degree. " Her capacity to create and, in subtle ways, to manage a shared creative space, one in which too many cooks don’t spoil the broth, is just one thing that makes the SITI Company special.

The American Repertory Theatre presents La Dispute at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, February 1 through 22. Tickets are $34 to $68; call (617) 547-8300.

Issue Date: January 30 - February 6, 2003
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