Benjamin Mosse speaks in superlatives, calls things “superlative,” and, by all accounts, is superlative. The extremely accomplished Mosse is a third-year candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in directing at the Yale School of Drama, artistic director of the Yale Cabaret and the director of a much-anticipated Drama School production of Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” to open in November. And as I sit down at Starbucks to discuss his accomplishments and passions, it is hard to imagine anything he says going unaccompanied by a gleam in his eye and a gracefully effusive gesture of not one, but both hands. And though Mosse happens to be at a particularly fine time in his professional life, the enthusiasm he radiates seems to spring from his love of theater rather than the praise his work is receiving lately.
Mosse considers himself lucky to have grown up in Sarasota, Fla., a place he describes as “strangely” in possession of such cultural and artistic accoutrements as an opera house, regional theater and art museums, as well as everything nearby Tampa had to offer. But then that archetypal eighth-grade social studies teacher ambled onto Mosse’s stage, leading him — by way of a field trip to see “Faust” — to a world in which he could “construct reality.” Mosse took constructing reality rather literally, starting a drama program at his high school, where, with “unmitigated temerity” — a favorite line of his from Atticus Finch, one of the characters he played in his days as an actor — he began his journey down the path he has followed ever since.
Barreling northward, Mosse headed for a theater degree at Northwestern University, choosing the school for its excellent theater studies major and (in his words) “superlative faculty.” He made the transition during his junior year there from actor to director once he realized that the fullness of the theatrical experience lay –to him — in the omniscience of the directorial position. Besides, he said, “directing is performance anyway.”
After 10 years out in the theater world as the founding artistic director for the IF Theater Collective in Cincinnati, Ohio, and assistant director at theaters throughout New England, Mosse applied to Yale. During his final interviews, he was taken to the Yale Cabaret’s production of “Cats Talk Back.”
“That night, I was sold by the notion of independent theater run by Yale Drama School students,” Mosse said. It’s no wonder, then, that once he enrolled at the drama school he became intimately involved with the Cabaret, starting as a waiter, actor, and now artistic director. The Cabaret is just one example of Mosse’s willingness to insert himself into the thick of anything that excites him — as artistic director, he must select and organize 20 shows for a 30-week season, each production with its own agenda, and all out to prove that “we can’t be complacent, we can’t be indolent.” His work with the Cabaret gives Mosse a chance to incite his audiences to critical thought and as well as giving him the opportunity to “witness the artistry of other imaginations,” Mosse said.
The active and the passive roles are both at play in the Cabaret’s first production of the season, the musical “Wild Party,” in which Mosse can entertain his propensity for romantic thought as well as his belief that “superlative theater has social, political, ethical and moral questions.” The story of one night of decadence in 1929, the action tracks the crumbling of sparkling Jazz Age facades, leaving only “dark and menacing ideologies,” Mosse said. With confidence that musical theater is perfectly capable of being “non-fluffy,” Mosse explained that the music itself is often “an excellent way to convey meaning”; even as it seems innocuous, it can be highly manipulative and persuasive.
For an intense week, Mosse will overlap rehearsals and performances of “Wild Party” (with performances Oct. 2 to 4) with rehearsals for “Orpheus Descending,” a School of Drama production that’s been getting national attention.
The story of “Lady Torrance, a forgotten woman in rural Mississippi longing for rebirth,” and “Val Xavier, a handsome drifter with a guitar” (according to the production’s press release), “Orpheus” is a reworking of Tennessee Williams’ first major production, “Battle of Angels.” In its first incarnation, the show ran for only two weeks, but Williams continued to work on it for more than 35 years afterward.
The loyalty “Orpheus Descending” inspired in its playwright may well provide insight into how it has maintained the interest of its current director.
“Why have I stuck so stubbornly to this play? Well nothing is more precious to anybody than the emotional record of his youth, and you will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart in this completed play that I now call ‘Orpheus Descending,'” Williams wrote in 1958. Hauntingly similar is the way Mosse grew up with his “Orpheus.” Mosse’s high school drama program performed the play, his favorite of Williams’ (whom he endearingly calls by his first name or sometimes initials) soon after Mosse first read it and fell in love with it. A few years after that, he worked on it at Northwestern. A mere 10 years later, Mosse’s confessed “unconscious yearning” for the play has resurfaced on the list of fall Drama School productions.
All this is of interest to Mosse and perhaps to Williams fans, but what makes this production notable? With the exception at Yale of a Dramat Ex production in the spring of 2002, “Orpheus” is very rarely produced, and when it is, it follows the text of a play filled with unanswered questions and disconnected plot points. Aware of the problem and struggling to find solutions, Mosse and his dramaturg never expected to find any answers when, on a whim, they rented the 1960 film adaptation, “The Fugitive Kind,” starring Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward. Screening the film in Mosse’s apartment, the two began to notice tiny but significant elements introduced to this story. These elements “completely altered the way [he’d] been thinking about the text,” and one in particular, he said, “invests you so much more in what happens to them.” This scene takes place on Palm Sunday. Lady gives Val a palm leaf, “and they’re happy. For a few minutes, time is still in the store. You kind of see what the potential beauty of their relationship could be –” Starry-eyed, Mosse can only breathlessly recall that seeing this for the first time was “unbelievable.”
Tennessee Williams, who wrote the screenplay to the film, added all of these adjustments to the plot himself, so it’s hardly theatrical blasphemy to include them on a stage version. If anything, the newfound clarity made possibly by the inclusion of these “very subtle but very catching” points does his work and his characters justice. But they never have — it took Mosse to discover them, and then ask for and receive permission by both MGM and the Williams estate to use them in the Drama School production. Most of all, however, it took Mosse and his own lifelong devotion to the play and its playwright to want to do all of this in the name of characters whose pizzazz and poignancy have touched him so closely for so long. Loving “moments of each of them,” Mosse admitted that “even the malignant characters have moments.” By righting the wrongs done to “Orpheus” by time and circumstance, Mosse is “trying to accomplish a clarifying of the action of his play,” motivated by what can only be eager devotion to a little-admired orphan of Williams’ oeuvre.
With a cast that is “unbelievable — truly superlative,” and “all aspects falling perfectly into place,” Mosse’s “Orpheus” will be the first Drama School production to grace the stage of the New Theater, which opened last year. As intimate a look into what Tennessee intended as one can hope to get, Mosse’s soon-to-be-realized vision may well be one response to his own lament that “there are social stigmas about the capital ‘R’ Romantic visions.”
Mosse’s focus and devotion may wel
l enable him to at last realize the romance of theatrical beauty and the truth of his favorite playwright’s words.