It has been more than 30 years since I saw my first Robert Falls’ production. While I haven’t seen most of his output, I’ve seen many, and remember them all. They lodge in the mind because, well, he takes the raw material of a playwright’s art, whittles it to a point and thrusts it into your eye. I could discuss 15 hugely memorable Falls’ productions, but I have room for five.
1. “In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison” (1984): Performed in the small Goodman Studio Theater, you almost had to dodge William L. Peterson’s spittle as he ranted and bashed his head against a filing cabinet. The lights came up after, and my friends and I blinked at each other, amazed to find ourselves back in the real world, in a theater, apparently, after having been hijacked into another realm by Falls’ powerful staging.
2. “Hamlet” (1985): Aiden Quinn walked onto the stage with a can of spray paint and, back to the audience, methodically began to paint “TO… BE… OR … NOT… TO… BE…” He turned to the audience, jerked his thumb at the dripping paint. “That’s the question!”
From the opening scene, in total darkness, the guards on the castle ramparts, cutting the night with their flashlights, to Gertrude, gazing at the king on a green room monitor, her face a Nancy Reagan mask of adoration, to Del Close’s Polonius, a bumbling alderman, the play was one daring directorial choice after another. My favorite: Ophelia, late in the fourth act, drawing on her face with makeup, hiking up her dress. My immediate thought was “She’s crazy!” and then — duh! — it’s Ophelia. Of course she’s crazy. Falls makes the familiar new again.
3. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2002): I could pick his 1990 “Iceman Cometh” or its 2015 revival with Nathan Lane, or the 2004 dark gem “Hughie” or any number of Brian Denehy/Robert Falls/Eugene O’Neill collaborations. But this one had Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jamie, and how could you not love that best?
4. “King Lear” (2006): Set in a Yugoslavish dictatorship, it started with two lords, Gloucester and Kent, standing at a urinal — backs to the audience, fortunately — trading gossip about the king’s division of his kingdom. A deeply disturbing production that had certain critics squashing a perfumed hankie under their noses in shock, particularly when Gloucester’s eyes are ripped out and end up sizzling on a line grill. Was that over the top? My take was: “Here’s a thought. If a character gets his eyes ripped out onstage, it’s supposed to be disturbing.”
5. “Measure for Measure” (2013): Sometimes an artist mellows as he ages. Robert Falls is not that artist. One of the most jarring pieces of theater I’ve seen. Vienna has become mid-1970s New York — think “Taxi Driver.” The play opened with a lurid full-stage orgy set to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” But the true jolt was at the end — Isabella, the saintly heroine, gets killed in the last moments, a twist Shakespeare never wrote. It left theatergoers gasping. At the discussion afterward people were angry at Falls for doing it. Which is a tribute, because when was the last time any play, never mind Shakespeare, made you mad? I loved it.