Hearing Ethan McSweeny discuss Triumph of Love, the 18th-century French comedy by Marivaux he is directing for Washington Shakespeare Company, one is struck by just how tricky a task the twentysomething director has set for himself and his actors. The play, about seduction, philosophy, and deceptionall complicated by various couplings and uncouplingsis often dismissed as a trifling, shallow diversion. McSweeny, though, suspects its themes run much deeper; he believes Triumph, besides being a theatrical romp, is also a serious examination of “the particular emotional state of falling in love.”
“A word that was not meant as a compliment was coined after Marivaux, marivauxdage, which Voltaire defined as ‘trivial, the weighing of flies’ eggs on a scale made from spider’s web,’” McSweeny begins, shaking his head. “But really what’s going on in Triumph is this incredible observation of the minutiae of the human heart, of what happens when people fall in love.”
This admission isn’t to say that McSweeny’s approach to Marivaux’s text will be either clinical or ponderous. Above all else, the director maintains, Triumph is a romantic comedyone in which people get hurt, yes, but also laugh and find moments of immeasurable happiness in a philosopher’s cold garden. “It’s like Taming of the Shrew, how there are always people asking for a revisionist productionyou know, deep, dark, and seriouswhen, in fact, the play isn’t that at all,” McSweeny explains. “The same is true with Triumph of Love. People have tried to do it deep, dark, and serious….People have tried doing it balls-to-the-wall comedyyou know, just slapstickand the truth of the play is somewhere down the middle. And that’s been my difficulty, finding that line.”
That McSweeny invokes Shakespeare’s ghost to help explain his take on Triumph of Love makes perfect sense. After graduating from Columbia in 1993, the native Washingtonian returned home to work as Michael Kahn’s assistant director at the Shakespeare Theatre. Four years of apprenticing later, McSweeny had not only his first professional credit as director, the Leopold-Loeb play Never the Sinner at Signature Theatre, but his first runaway hit. Sinner, after drawing raves for its stars and director this past fall, played in New York for a limited engagement and has since been booked for an open-ended run off-Broadway. McSweeny now has an agent. He’s moving to New York. His phone calls, he says, are being returned. Doors he didn’t even know were there are opening before him. In short, the floodgates were opened, letting in not just amazing opportunities but unexpected pressures, too.
“I don’t want this to be the case, but I do feel that now that I’ve directed Never the Sinner, people are going to come to see what I do with Triumph of Love expecting something. And they’re such different plays. I don’t think there’s going to be as strong a sense of the directorial hand as there was for Sinner,” he says. “I believe you must let the play dictate the style, rather than deciding you have a certain directorial style and that you are going to push that style onto every play.”
“And,” he adds, “I don’t want to be only offered cinematic scripts about young psycho-killers for the rest of my life.”
McSweeny doesn’t have time to worry too much about Sinner’s success tainting his current and future projects, though. Besides working with his cast to find the right balance between Triumph’s broad comedy and its quieter moments of poignancy and truth, he is re-blocking Sinner for its transfer, preparing for his move, and just starting to think about what he wants to direct next: possibly another play by Sinner’s author, John Logan. Or a revival of Look Back in Anger. Again, the uncertainty doesn’t faze him.
“New York’s been a destination for me for a while now, and it’s finally time,” McSweeny says. “It’s time for me to go out and see what happens. Nobody knows, of course, but I’m thrilled at having the freedom to be available and ready for whatever comes along.”Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa