Deconstructing Richard

Richard Hamburger transformed the Dallas Theater Center into a regional marvel, but as he faces a million dollar debt and a host of angry critics, is it curtains for his daring vision?

Richard Hamburger, Dallas Theater Center's artistic director, has a taste for the perverse. Maybe that's why he's preparing to stage Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill's claustrophobic drama about one tormented family's day of bitter revelation, in the Arts District Theater, DTC's gigantic downtown space. That's roughly the artistic equivalent of a chamber trio playing in an aircraft hangar.

Hamburger is well aware of the drama's smothering intimacy and how most directors have capitalized on it. To him, that's part of the fun.

"This is going to be a very Beckett staging," Hamburger coos, his small, curly-haired form hovering over the miniaturized set for Long Day's Journey in his office. His fingers sweep over the pair of dining tables, mirror images of each other that will be placed 80 feet apart. So giddy is he in discussing his next project, he appears ready to whip out some action figures, move them about the tiny stage, and begin delivering a scene in falsetto and basso profundo voices. But he sticks with describing the play. "No walls, no doors, no production tricks. I want to remove anything that might get between the actors, to show how symbiotic this family is."

Don't dismiss this as a harebrained artistic decision borne of the desire to play provocateur with a familiar classic. During DTC's '92-'93 season, Hamburger's first as artistic director, he smashingly performed a similar feat by staging Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a play about the stultifying consequences of marital role-playing, in the barn-like Arts District Theater. He did a technical "deconstruction" of the play, stripping away the set and moving row upon row of seats closer to the stage, to the puzzlement of some DTC board members (and, one presumes, the consternation of the poor bastards who had to move the seats). The audience was ringside for the final confrontation between Nora and her husband, which took place on a bare stage. At the end, Nora walked through the audience, out the door, and into the Dallas night.

"I thought about having a car waiting and then driving her away," Hamburger remembers. He rolls his eyes. "But then I decided that would be stupid."

Hamburger, who two productions from now will end his sixth season steering the Dallas Theater Center's art, is marvelous at this kind of tightrope walk, maintaining a disciplined course across outrageous material. The shows he has directed for DTC have been distinguished for taking audiences to the edge of the abyss. The man who introduced interracial gay toilet sex to the house that Frank Lloyd Wright built can hardly be accused of coddling his audiences. Even he professes some wonder that he's gotten away with so much.

His vision, which is epic and adversarial, scores bull's-eyes for its professionalism and quality control. The combination has made the Dallas Theater Center an unparalleled forum for emerging voices and fringe dwellers, certainly in the Southwest and perhaps across the country.

Still, there's speculation that Hamburger's noncommercial choices in the commercial field of regional theater might have cost him the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater that Houston's more conventional Alley Theatre won two years ago. For all that New York is championed as the theatrical capital of America, Broadway is ruled mercilessly by the box office. And until the '97-'98 season, Hamburger has been notorious for ignoring the easy cash upon which many regional artistic directors have built their careers by restaging shows that have the imprimatur of recent Broadway runs.

The results have been felt by DTC, or so goes more speculation. It's operating under a $1.2 million deficit, although how much was accrued under Hamburger and how much under his predecessor Adrian Hall is unclear. The center also recently hired Edith Love, a woman with a national reputation for whipping company budgets into shape, as managing director.

Perhaps it's impossible to say whether Broadway snubbed Hamburger because he ignored his New York roots, choosing instead to stage works by former local playwrights such as Octavio Solis (Santos y Santos) and too-out-there-even-for-off-Broadway meditations on history and identity such as the multimedia The Sternheim Project. But one group that is annoyed with Hamburger is easier to identify--actors who live and work in Dallas, or at least those whom he doesn't regularly hire.

The widespread perception is that Hamburger goes out of town to cast major roles, doesn't attend much local theater, and doesn't care about performers who toil in Dallas' busy but unglamorous theater scene. The Leon Rabin Awards, which will celebrate their fourth year in 1998 and are chosen by the 2,000-member Dallas Theater League, have snubbed the very talented Hamburger every year in the best director category.

Hamburger's reaction to criticism, whether of his unconventional play choices or his casting decisions, is plainspoken and unapologetic: "I know I'm not going to win any popularity contests."

When Richard Hamburger stepped into the Dallas Theater Center's artistic director position in 1992, he inherited the aftermath of a tragedy.

Ken Bryant, the previous director, had died more than a year before following a traffic accident. Death, especially one as untimely as Bryant's, can do much to burnish one's reputation. But many people recall Bryant's brief DTC regime with fondness, if for nothing else than that he was considerably more diplomatic--and, apparently, more interested in involving Dallas actors in the Theater Center's long-term vision--than the DTC's previous director, Adrian Hall.

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