Why Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn finds powerful femmes so alluring

Credit him with a fine King Lear, an inventive Timon of Athens, and a vivid Peer Gynt; with programming a risky Othello and a gripping Don Carlos; and with shaking the cobwebs from curiosities such as King John. But turn, for the sake of this argument anyway, away from his Shakespeare and Schiller to his forays into the work of more contemporary writers, from Oscar Wilde to Tennessee Williams. Consider the abundant evidence they offer for the contention that Michael Kahn is a man who loves women.

“Loves” is a vague and convenient shorthand, of course. Kahn’s is a passion neither carnal nor romantic, a fascination not with the physicality of femininity or even with womanhood for its own sake. Yet vividly drawn women—and the idiosyncratic actresses who’ve created them—stand out sharply in the chronicle of his career.

Consider the lionesses who have stalked the stage during his 15 seasons as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre: Elizabeth Ashley as Princess Kosmonopolis, the magnificent ruin at the center of Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. Pat Carroll playing Falstaff and Volpone’s fox—to say nothing of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Helen Carey’s Cleopatra. Dixie Carter, Wilde’s indispensable Woman of No Importance. Kelly McGillis and Franchelle Stewart Dorn, forces of nature generating a supernatural electricity in that titanic production of Mourning Becomes Electra.

Look into the other corners of Kahn’s résumé: There, famously, is Ashley again, Tony-nominated in that Broadway Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. There was another Mourning during his tenure with Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Theatre—the epic play’s first major revival, in fact, with Sada Thompson and Jane Alexander. There was an earlier Mother Courage, too, with no less formidable a creature than Eileen Heckart as the great capitulator, and a Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Kate Reid as the addict Mary Tyrone. Shirley Knight invaded Glenn Close’s space in Kahn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Maria Tucci was The Heiress who inhabited his Washington Square, and with the triumvirate of Reid, Tucci, and Marian Seldes, the director staged a Three Sisters that inspired some of the choicest venom ever spat by the famously dyspeptic critic John Simon.

And now Hedda rears her siren’s head: Judith Light, reborn as a theatrical force with her lacerating performance in Margaret Edson’s Wit, assumes Ibsen’s tormented and tormenting antiheroine in the Hedda Gabler that opened last Tuesday and closes out this year’s Shakespeare Theatre season. As if that weren’t enough, the 2001-2002 schedule will bring two of Kahn’s favorite women back to the Lansburgh, showcasing them in a prodigious lineup that includes The Duchess of Malfi (McGillis) and Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (Ashley yet again, stepping into the steel-magnolia role of Regina—the part Bette Davis played with such clipped ruthlessness in the film). Next year’s season opener? Oedipus, a name impossible to pronounce without hearing the “Jocasta” in its echoes.

What is it, then, that draws Kahn toward the distaff when arguably the weight of the theater’s riches are devoted to the spear?

Listen to what he has to say on the subject: “My two favorite movie directors are Fassbinder and Almodóvar, in part because of the complexity and perversity of their view of the world, but also because of their extraordinary female iconography.” And yet Kahn insists that he sets out to create not icons, but individuals. “As a director,” he says, “what I find I do in rehearsal now is sit and participate in the moment-to-moment life of the character.”

Each new characterization, he explains, is an exploration he undertakes with the player, not an edifice he superimposes. And Kahn devotes as much energy to the Falstaffs as to the Merry Wives who tangle the old rake in the nets of his own duplicities. “I don’t think I put women on any particular kind of pedestal,” he says. Still, he admits, “There is something—it often is easier for me to participate in the moment-to-moment life of the women.”

Shall we rush immediately to the clichéd conclusion? Like Fassbinder and Almodóvar, Kahn has frequently seen his sexual orientation discussed alongside his work. But a gay man might just as well be fascinated with heroes as with heroines, and Kahn’s sexuality can no more be the entirety of his inspiration than it is the sum of his personality. It’s simply too obvious; one might as well ask about his relationship with his mother.

“I had an interesting mother,” he ventures, without being asked. We are precisely eight minutes down a conversational road that began with a mention of the upcoming Oedipus. Kahn’s mother was a temperamental Russian married to a taciturn man of German extraction. She ran a dress shop in which he spent long Saturdays in a “theatrical fantasy world.”

“She died when I was 13,” he continues. “My father was a remote sort of man; he meant well, but he really couldn’t express himself. My mother expressed herself all the time. So I grew up, probably, with a closer sense of ‘woman’ than I did of ‘man.’”

Kahn leans back, steepling his fingers. He actually seems to be considering this information in a new light.

“Now, I didn’t get along very well with either of them, but that probably has something to do with it. My mother was certainly the strongest influence in my life.”

This, perhaps inevitably, sparks a sideline conversation about Almodóvar’s 1999 film All About My Mother, in the wake of which the Spanish director reportedly observed that all of his famously offbeat work is about his relationship with his mother in one way or another. Kahn sits, not responding this time until the implied question is made explicit. Could the answer be that straightforwardly Freudian?

“I would hope that everything I do is not about my relationship with my mother,” Kahn says. He is amused, but thoughtfully so. “I would hope not.”

Still, Kahn cannot quite verbalize what it is about strong women, whether character or actress, that draws him—though he frankly acknowledges their allure, and that the pull has been constant since his youth, when the stage’s great female chameleons were the stars that most dazzled him. His muses were Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Uta Hagen, Julie Harris: “To see Julie Harris do Member of the Wedding and then I Am a Camera the next year,” he recalls, “and both of them so idiosyncratic and both of them so complete—” He breaks off, jumping ahead to another thought already forming.

It was the very unpredictability of these women’s performances, he suggests, that drew him: their inventiveness, the complexity of their characterizations—so counterintuitive as to border on the perverse. “There was always something off-kilter, something off-center and surprising about those women,” he says. “The choices they’d make would never be the conventional ones or the ordinary ones, and that’s thrilling.”

In his own work, Kahn is drawn not just to idiosyncratic actresses, but to characters whose madnesses and motivations run deeper than average; doubtless this is why we see so much of Williams at the Shakespeare Theatre, so little of David Mamet.

“I find complicated female characters the most interesting to think about,” Kahn says. “Sometimes playwrights, when they get inside a female character, write with more range than they do for men. Tennessee Williams, when he writes women, writes them better than he writes men, with more complexity, more color; they are more prismatic, with more edges to them.”

Perhaps this is part of the answer: Kahn is drawn to strong women because he can never fully unravel them. He attempted Hedda once before, at New York’s Roundabout Theatre, failing, by his own admission, because he came to the play thinking he knew her. “I came in thinking she had to be something so incredible, so archetypical that I didn’t know what she was doing minute by minute.” Now he knows better.

“I said to Judith the other day, ‘Hedda hasn’t read all the books about Hedda that you have.’” He meant it as a reminder to himself, as well.

Part of what makes Hedda so eternally inscrutable is the darkness in which she, like most of her theatrical sisters, is required to move. The dynamics of womanly power are difficult to pin down even today, becoming more difficult still as we move through the various periods in which Kahn and his favorite authors play. Williams’ Princess Kosmonopolis survives—triumphs—by escaping, remaking herself, drawing always on what she calls “the pride of the defeated.” Ashley and Kahn rescued the play from its own purple excesses by emphasizing the character’s desperate showiness no less than her tenacious will to continue; their princess was a woman ultimately humbled but never broken. Brecht’s Mother Courage moves constantly forward, too, but hers is a bleaker sort of survival instinct, one that bargains away most of what makes endurance worth the effort. Both women, though, are ruthless in their resolve to live, which surely explains both Kahn’s interest in them and their impact on his audiences.

Hedda is monstrously destructive, driven by envy and ambition, spurred by desire, and fettered by the dictates of decorum; she chafes at social convention and cherishes her social position; she is vicious and vulnerable at once. Shaw writes that she “has no ethical ideals at all, only romantic ones”; his own muse, the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, apparently played her as a woman obsessed with the constraints that keep her from living as impulsively and heedlessly as a man.

The character’s complexity makes her less of a gorgon than, say, the equally cruel Lady Macbeth, who inhabits a less rigidly structured society—and yet both women to some degree are forced to operate through indirection. Even Regina, the diabolically ambitious creature Ashley will embody in next season’s Little Foxes, must resort to manipulation to secure her hold on the family business, though she is as nakedly grasping and greedy a creature as any of her brothers. The evil that men do onstage, Iago notwithstanding, is generally done more straightforwardly— and is surely a bit less interesting to a thoughtful director.

Sexuality is more complicated for Kahn’s women, too: In scores of plays and novels from the last two centuries, what reasonable people see now as healthy sexual appetites are transmuted by male authors into something voracious and frightening. Sexuality is central to the troubles in Streetcar and Cat, both of which consider the intersection of a woman’s frustrated desire and a man’s frustrated queerness. The same impulse is crucial to the psychological crosscurrents in Hedda, certainly; it is the very core of Mourning, in which wife destroys husband, daughter destroys mother only to become her likeness, and Oedipal yearnings become entangled in the original Electra complex. In Kahn’s grandly scaled production, Mourning’s women were deeply, movingly human, and yet they still seemed such titans that their passions swept the action along with the urgency of tides, the inevitability of seasons.

At the end of an hour’s winding conversation on the topic of the women in his life, Kahn throws out an observation that, in light of everything else he’s discussed, seems somehow equally inevitable: “The only time I was an insatiable fan of any performer—I mean an insatiable, obsessive fan—was with Maria Callas. I went to every performance; when she got fired, Terrence McNally and I wrote ‘Viva Callas’ in red paint on the walls of the Met at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

McNally, of course, has written not one but two plays that turn on Callas (The Lisbon Traviata, in which two opera queens obsess about her and about love, and Master Class, in which she examines her own obsessions). To Kahn, who offered her a stage Phaedre that never came to pass, she was “just the most theatrical thing….She combined an extraordinary ability to convey what was going on with a character with what was really such a complex personal life.”

Like the actresses Kahn most finds himself fascinated with, Callas was both temperamental and possessed of outsize temperament, and, he says, she “used her temperament for art.” She is for Kahn, he decides at last, “whatever Almodóvar’s mother is for him….She had all the mystery and all of the specificity and all of the drama and all of the glamour that I ever wanted to see in a character—and somehow she made it possible for us to participate in it.”

Perhaps it comes down to that: mystery and a recurring desire to take part in it. What makes Kahn’s women so powerfully iconic is that his is an artist’s heightened version of our culture’s abiding absorption with the layered intricacies we believe femaleness implies—its power and the permutations thereof, the sensibilities and sensitivity that supposedly inhere in “woman,” the shadows of motivation and the shades of meaning a male-dominated society has cloaked the word in (and which the efforts of several generations of feminists have been devoted to stripping away). Examine Kahn’s fascination with women and it becomes clearer than ever that it’s not just he who finds them mysterious; it’s every man who is fascinated with an eternal Other. CP