Changing direction at the Yale Rep

The Yale Repertory Theatre is at a crossroads. When Stan Wojewodski Jr. ended his 10-year reign as artistic director in April 2000, he left the theater adrift in a mire of speculation, doubt and gossip. A drawn-out recruitment process for Wojewodski’s replacement coincided with declining box office receipts and shrinking national prominence, creating a shaky platform for a new artistic director. Former Director Robert Brustein went so far as to say, “Obviously there’s been some decline in the quality of the Rep.”

Into this environment strode James Bundy DRA ’95, the new artistic director and dean of the Yale School of Drama. From the beginning, Bundy chose the Rep as his main priority.

Along with the priority comes a challenge. The Rep has been criticized for failing to draw crowds, and it has earned fewer national awards in recent years. In just two months on the job, Bundy has been forced to devise a plan that would boost audience numbers while at the same time upholding Wojewodski’s outstanding commitment to new and experimental theater. It was a difficult line to walk, especially for a man who had never directed a year-round theater program, much less a full-fledged graduate school.

But Bundy has faced this task with finesse and grace. Following in Wojewodski’s footsteps, he has included two premieres in the 2002-2003 season, “Black Monk,” by David Rabe, and “Fighting Words,” by Sunil Kuruvilla DRA ’99. A common fear about new works is that they will fail to draw an audience — yet “Monk” will star popular actor Sam Waterston ’62, and “Fighting Words” is a new work by Kuruvilla, who will be familiar to city audiences from “Rice Boy” two years ago.

In addition, classics such as “Cinderella” and “The Taming of the Shrew” have made it onto the roster. Even the most uninformed theatergoer will recognize those names, and will be therefore more likely to purchase a ticket. But Bundy has injected new life into those works, by melding “Cinderella” with “Medea” and “Macbeth” into one giant gender–themed production and by casting all Latino men in a controversial version of “Shrew.”

The ethnic nature of this show will likely appeal to a broader demographic in New Haven, a goal that the Rep has long held. “Breath, Boom” is also also racially driven, addressing themes that have proved hugely popular in the past at the Rep. Black playwrights Athol Fugard, August Wilson and Suzan Lori-Parks have long used Yale’s stages to explore racial issues, and as a result they have emerged as three of Yale’s most nationally acclaimed collaborators.

Bundy has clearly chosen his first season wisely, with a powerful combination of reliable audience-pleasers and new, provocative works. By blending the two, it appears that Bundy has concocted a potent brew that stands a very good chance of resurrecting the theater’s prominence. The Rep used to be a theater that garnered national reviews of each show and spawned award-winning actors, playwrights and directors. Yale has the resources, the student talent and the inspiration. Now, it appears, it has a director to lead the way.

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