Rewriting a classic fable (not simply readapting it) is treading dangerous territory, director Darko Tresnjak concedes. And he'd certainly be in a position to know, having done just that. His re-tooled "Princess Turandot," by 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi, bowed Off-Broadway at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on Dec. 7, a Blue Light Theatre Company production.
Still, as the 35-year-old Yugosla-vian native tells it, there was enough in "Turandot" that he both liked and disliked to make doing a reconceived version a viable prospect.
"I love the visual elements in the Gozzi play, along with the physicality and theatricality of the commedia dell'arte," asserts Tresnjak. " 'Turandot' is a fascinating myth, but the Gozzi play is long and ponderous and I'm not sure it would fully talk to contemporary audiences.
"The basic blueprint of the story is the same. I honor the play's spirit, but some of the plot turns are my own. I have invigorated the text," continues Tresnjak, who is speaking to us over the phone, a slight foreignism still evident in his speech.
"While Gozzi presents Turandot as a strong woman, there are elements of misogyny in the work. Turandot is a villain, but she is also a heroine." He stresses, "I don't have any sentimental political vision here."
Set in a universe awash in acrobatics, puppetry, masks, and broadly drawn characters, "Turandot" tells the story of a willful princess who meets her match. Initially, she has no desire to get married, but to appease her father, who is determined to see her wed, a bargain is struck. Each suitor must answer her three riddles. If he succeeds, she will marry him; if he fails, he is beheaded. Not unexpectedly, nobody is able to come up with the right responses (the stage is flanked with dozens of severed heads impaled on stakes), until the handsome Prince Calaf arrives. He solves her riddles and conquers her heart.
Still, the question of her brutality remains. In Tresnjak's version, she defends herself in feminist terms, setting herself up as the victimized woman's revenge. She reminds her father that he abused his wife, Turandot's mother.
Tresnjak maintains, however, that the theme that most interests him in "Turandot" is "the way proud people who are in control deal with falling in love, which means they are going to lose some of that control."
Equally important, says Tresnjak, is the international flavor of the production that places the work in the "province of the imagination. The source for the Gozzi tale, written in Italian, is in fact Arabian. I am a Yugoslavian director, the actors are American, although a Persian-born actress plays Turandot, and the story is set in China."
Tresnjak, who has helmed productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Virginia Opera, Sarasota Opera, and the Florentine Opera, among others, points out that the major challenges in mounting "Turandot" were casting and scale.
"I saw this piece as a chamber epic with each character fully realized. I needed actors who were very physical—light and speedy, but always appearing effortless."
The imagery of a work is central to Tresnjak; indeed, he emphasizes, that if a play moves him emotionally, the visuals are not far behind. "And those first pictorial instincts should be trusted."
Having said that, he underscores that, at the core, he is a storyteller. "I'm interested in plot and narrative whose medium is theatre. The plays I most like blend comedy and tragedy. My favorite play is 'The Winter's Tale' because of the way that it combines comedy and tragedy. Same with 'Turandot.' To me, that's theatre."
He makes it clear, however, that he is not interested in either deconstruction or updating for the sake of updating. "I'm offended by the idea that if a work is set in a historical period, the audiences won't get it."
Teaching is Important
The son of an engineer, Tresnjak had his sights set on a directing career by the time he was seven, he recalls. "I had just seen the opening ceremonies at the Olympics on TV  and decided to stage my own Olympic ceremonies. I directed the other kids in the neighborhood to light torches and carry them down the streets, a ritual which was followed by all of us playing competitive games."
When Tresnjak arrived in the United States in 1976, his desire to direct was further enhanced by the bicentennial festivities that were, to say the least, highly theatrical. Yet, when it was time for him to go to college (Swarthmore in Swarthmore, PA), he majored in English. "I feel a director's first job is to be a reader." He adds, "If I weren't a director, I think I might be a playwright or novelist."
After Tresnjak graduated from college, he spent the next five years dancing, choreographing, and working as a puppeteer and mask-maker—stints that have clearly shaped his esthetic. When he was 27, he enrolled in Columbia University's graduate directing program, a course of study that lasted three years.
"Yes, I do believe directing can be taught," he declares. "But there is the danger of a directing student losing his own identity, especially in the face of a great director. The student has to be strong enough in his own ideas and sense of self to be able to take from the teacher what's right for him and leave behind what isn't."
Tresnjak credits his Columbia University mentor Andrei Serban with having a profound influence on his (Tresnjak's) vision and approach. "In Serban's rehearsals, everyone feels so alive. He makes you believe that the act of theatre is important and every moment of rehearsal is precious. He searches for each moment's potential."
Although Tresnjak hopes he is following in his mentor's footsteps, he adds a note of pragmatism to the rehearsal process. "I try to let the actors know that, given the shortness of the rehearsal period, there is a safety net in place, meaning I have on hand four or five possible attacks on the material. I've done my homework."
He contends, "It's a director's job to have a direction. Not everything in theatre evolves organically. I know there is endless discussion of 'process,' and frequently in the name of the 'process' nobody is concerned with the audience's responses. I am. That is not to say I pander to them, but I am aware that we're charging lots of money for a ticket and the audiences' needs have to be addressed."
Each production, clearly enough, carries its own casting demands. But generally, Tresnjak looks for actors who have, in addition to a "generosity of spirit," training in as many performing disciplines as possible (from ballet to jazz to acting) and backgrounds that represent a potpourri of approaches (method, Meisner, etc).
"Young actors who are in search of legitimacy often look for 'The one way.' I find that approach ludicrous."
To judge by his resume, Tresnjak's strategies have served him well. Over the past 13 years, he has worked steadily as a director, never holding a day job. During the last four years, he has directed 16 operas and five plays.
Still, he acknowledges that he may be an anomaly. Many young directors are not going to make it unless they're privately bankrolled. "But if you're not," he quips, only half-kiddingly, "I suggest buying lots of popcorn, eggs, and potatoes. You can stretch them a long way."
PULL QUOTE: "I'm interested in plot and narrative whose medium is theatre. The plays I most like blend comedy and tragedy…To me, that's theatre."