“OK, guys, let’s rock this.”
The voice on the microphone sounded like a public radio anchor — smooth, resonant, oozing with gravitas.
Instead, it belonged to Broadway’s hottest director, Rachel Chavkin, leading her cast through a rehearsal of “The Royal Family” as she prepared to make her Guthrie Theater debut this weekend.
Chavkin has gotten to-die-for reviews since her “War and Peace”-influenced musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” opened in November on Broadway, where it’s become a hot ticket to rival “Hamilton.” A New York Times rave called the Josh Groban-starring production “rapturous” and “a witty, inventive enchantment.”
Raven-haired and muscular at 36, she still looks like the fearless soccer player she was in her youth — though she contests that label.
“Most people whom the world would characterize as ‘fearless’ are in fact fueled by fear and anxiety about being labeled as lazy or something else,” said Chavkin.
Looking like a forewoman at a construction site, she tucked the mic in her back pocket and stepped onto the Guthrie’s proscenium stage during a technical rehearsal last week. She wanted to illustrate a bit of blocking for actor Victoria Janicki, who plays a daughter in the madcap comedy. Gently, she coached the actor, a quick study, before moving on to others in the large cast of 17, which includes local notables Michelle O’Neill, Shawn Hamilton, Angela Timberman and Robert Berdahl.
This is her happy place, the director said — going over notes with cast and crew, working to create stage images that will capture theatergoers.
“Royal Family” is her first opportunity to work at the Guthrie, a venue she has long admired. She had a fan in Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Haj, who thought director and play were a good match.
In only the first season that Haj has programmed on his own, the Guthrie has presented more female directors than ever before in a single slate — nine shows in all, helping to redress a frequent complaint about his predecessor, Joe Dowling. Those include Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which will open in April, and stagings last fall by Sarah Rasmussen (“Sense and Sensibility”) and Patricia McGregor (“The Parchman Hour”).
Twin Cities connections
Chavkin, who will return next summer to stage a show in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, relishes any chance to get back to the Twin Cities, even in January. Her best friend from college at New York University is from the Twin Cities, and her husband, Jacob Heinrichs, is a Davenport, Iowa-bred electrician who worked for many years at the Guthrie Lab.
Chavkin has pingponged between avant-garde theater and more traditional fare. Two of her more experimental productions have played at Walker Art Center, including “RoosevElvis,” in which the spirits of Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley war over the soul of a meatpacking worker.
Some may wonder what attracted her to this 1927 show-biz-themed comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. “Royal Family” is a thinly veiled sendup of the famed Barrymore acting family. When it first bowed on Broadway, siblings Ethel, Lionel and John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) were veteran stars of stage and screen. The Barrymores actually threatened to sue the production.
The action swirls around dowager Fanny Cavendish, the cane-wielding widow of the most acclaimed actor of his day. She’s 70 and planning a tour. Her daughter, Julie, still has Broadway cachet while Gwen, the third generation of the Cavendish dynasty, is wondering about sticking with the family business or striking out on her own. She marries someone who’s not a professional actor.
Chavkin insists “The Royal Family” will be a surprise for Guthrie audiences.
“This sounds like an old show but it’s extremely contemporary,” she said. “There’s a grandmother who’s dying, a single mom who’s trying to balance a ton, plus crazy relatives and a daughter who’s trying to decide if she wants to be her mom.
“It’s not even about showbiz to me. It’s about family, period. The stuff they’re dealing with is stuff we all deal with.”
Hooked by ‘Threepenny’
Chavkin first was jazzed by theater in 1989 when she saw Sting play Mack the Knife in a pre-Broadway tryout of “Threepenny Opera” in Washington, D.C., where she grew up. Her parents, both civil rights attorneys, had secured good seats.
“I remember the organ grinder singing the prologue, with this massive spit shower raining down on the audience,” she said. “It was gross and magnetic. And in one of the later scenes, someone dropped a watch and another actor picked it up and said, ‘Here you go.’ My father leaned over to me and said, ‘That wasn’t supposed to happen.’ ”
The fact that, in the name of art, actors could suspend social norms or do something unexpected thrilled her preschool mind. That memory stayed with her as she grew into the idea that being in the theater, wrestling with ideas, bringing characters to life, could be worthy of a life’s work.
“The idea of the sudden transformation is a total myth,” she said. “I’ve had five jobs since college to support my theater work, the main one being lead bookseller at Barnes & Noble.”
She rattled off a litany of patchwork employment that included being an adjunct teacher (at New York University), working as a personal assistant (to two psychiatrists) and selling beef and bison at a farmers market.
“I’m a vegetarian now, but at the time I loved both the cash that I would get under the table and the meat — really great meat! Plus, I dated a bunch of boys from the market.”
In her mid-20s she co-founded a company, TEAM, to emulate two New York troupes she admired, Elevator Repair Service and Wooster Group. “We started the company just so that we could do work,” said Chavkin, who remains artistic director of TEAM. The company premiered its first show, “Architecting,” in 2008 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning two top honors.
The show was described as “a road-tripping requiem for modern America” haunted by the ghosts of prejudice. That aesthetic approach — working with classic texts and contemporary artifacts, mashing up the past and the present — became a hallmark of the company’s work, one that was deeply influenced by Chavkin’s vision.
It’s what many find so exhilarating about “Comet,” an immersive piece drawn from Tolstoy that initially was staged in 2012 at Ars Nova, a pathfinding small New York theater. Although it sounds like a bit of a stretch, Chavkin said she’s finding a similar heady mix of the past and the contemporary in “Royal Family.”
“ ‘Comet’ is a celebratory, communal show with a deeply delicate story at its heart,” she said. “ ‘Royal Family’ is like that, as we rock this balance between their concerns and figuring out how to translate that humor today.”