Tuesday, February 14, 1995 Home Edition Section: Calendar Page: F-1

Bringing a ‘Brave New World’ to Today’s Stage; Theater: Fifteen years after staging the novel at CalArts, director Robert Benedetti is back with a more sophisticated production for the school’s 25th anniversary.;


How prophetic was Aldous Huxley’s 1936 novel “Brave New World”?

In his utopia, people took Soma to keep smiling through the day. We have Prozac. In his world, assigned identity was a cornerstone of function. In ours, social class and identity politics increasingly determine one’s place in the scheme of things. In his, surfeit was the index of well-being. In ours, the bumper tag smartly reads, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

Like George Orwell’s “1984,” “Brave New World” is a tale foretold of the 20th Century’s various Faustian pacts with social engineering. Where “1984" looked East to the totalitarian state, “Brave New World” turned West and foresaw the tyranny of the pleasure principle.

“It’s become more and more relevant as time goes by,” said director Robert Benedetti, who is staging the production at CalArts with a student cast for two weekends, beginning Thursday.

“You have the movement toward the secular and away from spiritual values. You have the cult of personality. ‘Brave New World’ describes the ultimate consumer society, where everyone is trained to make use of manufactured goods as much as possible. And now that cloning and genetic engineering have passed beyond technical possibilities, we have an ethical quandary that’s only beginning to be addressed.”


The quandary that “Brave New World” envisions, ethical or not, has been addressed by Benedetti before. In 1980, to be exact, when he staged an environmental dramatization of the novel at CalArts, in one of the rare instances where Jules Fisher’s and Herbert Blau’s imaginative design of the school’s Modular Theater didn’t outstrip the imaginations of the artists working in it.

The theater’s continuous use of rising and falling platforms, and the appearance and disappearance of rooms in which the audience found and lost itself, offered an unnerving counterpoint to any official decrees from an immutable state. The permanent became impermanent. Identity dissolved in the vertigo of protest and plaint. One’s assigned role led not to security but to despair, as in the case of Lenina Crown, for example, who knew only how to give pleasure, but wound up experiencing helplessness.

That 1980 production was one of the highlights of Benedetti’s 19-year tenure at CalArts (eight of them as dean of the theater department—he left in 1990 to work for Ted Danson’s film production company). And once the school began looking in earnest for ways to celebrate its 25th anniversary, restaging “Brave New World” seemed a natural.

As ingeniously mounted as it was then, Benedetti sees an even more sophisticated production now. “We have technology we didn’t 15 years ago,” he said during a lunch break at a Hollywood sound studio, where he’s directing the comedy special “Kelsey Grammer’s Affectionate Look at Fatherhood” for NBC.

“The sound is now computerized and digitalized. The scenes are more unified than before. And David Rosenboom, who’s dean of music, has written an original score. But the basic idea is the same, 18 minutes re-enacted five different times as the audience is cycled through.”

This is Benedetti’s first theater production since he directed the Australian premiere of “Glengarry Glen Ross” in Melbourne six years ago. At 57, his life in the theater has been a rich one. He started with Second City in his Chicago hometown and taught at Carnegie Mellon before heading the acting program (and later the theater department) at Yale. He’s directed at numerous regional theaters, including the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. His CalArts production “Victory Over the Sun” played the Berlin Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

These are just the highlights. He’s also an actor, an author and a theoretician, strongly influenced by the ’60s theater of Joseph Chaikin, among others, and Stanislavski, Grotowski and the Living Theater. He’s written four books. One of them, “Seeming, Being and Becoming,” conveys a sense of loss. “What makes theater unique?” he asks. “The living presence of the actor,” he concludes, calling for the resumption of a theatrical spirituality that can make “the degraded art of the actor once again aesthetically significant and ethical.”

People don’t talk about acting this way anymore, now that the function of acting mostly serves celebrity—a development quite in keeping with “Brave New World’s” outlook.

Nonetheless, “I remain somewhat optimistic,” Benedetti said. “I stay in touch with younger people. The kids now feel a lot like the kids in the ’60s. They question authority. They feel a need for spiritual values.” Too, as president of Danson’s film production company, Anasazi, Benedetti feels more at home in an outfit that deals wherever it can with social and environmental issues. “I’ve left the groves of academe and joined the temple of Mammon,” he said at one point, somewhat ruefully. Later, he added, “TV and film can be an enormous force for good.”

* “Brave New World” will be presented at CalArts, 24700 McBean Parkway, Santa Clarita, through Feb. 25. Thur.-Sat. and Feb. 21-25, 8 p.m.; also, Feb. 18, 2 p.m. $7. (805) 253-7800.

PHOTO: COLOR, Robert Benedetti restaging “Brave New World”: “It’s become more and more relevant as time goes by.” PHOTOGRAPHER: GENARO MOLINA / Los Angeles Times Type of Material: Profile Descriptors: BENEDETTI, ROBERT; CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF THE ARTS; PLAYS; BRAVE NEW WORLD (PLAY);

Copyright (c) 1995 Times Mirror Company