Director Ivo van Hove challenges actors and audiences

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NEW YORK >> If you leave a theater thinking that what you just saw was a perfectly entertaining and pleasing play, you probably didn't see one directed by Ivo van Hove.

The Dutch visionary, known for stripping down a work to its essence and using minimal props, isn't interested in giving anyone a nice night out.

"The theater should be like a pressure cooker — an intellectual, emotional pressure cooker," he said. "You should be confronted by things that you don't want to confront."

Confronting Van Hove's work will not be hard this winter with two Broadway revivals of Arthur Miller plays — "A View From the Bridge" and "The Crucible" — and a new show co-written by David Bowie called "Lazarus" downtown.

"It's a little busy on my highway," van Hove said at the Lyceum Theatre, where his radical reworking of "A View From the Bridge" has been previewing and opens tonight. "I live only once. I better do it well."

For almost two decades, van Hove has been reinventing modern theater by peeling it down to its core, ignoring conventions and making it emotionally charged.

When he redid "A Streetcar Named Desire," the actress playing Stella spent much of the play naked in a bathtub. His redo of the 17th-century "The Misanthrope" added cellphones and laptops. He put cows onstage in "Desire Under the Elms" and added Lou Reed's "Heroin" to a production of "Antigone."

"He takes texts and seems to pay them the great respect by liberating them from a traditional way of performing them," said actress Nicola Walker, who is making her Broadway debut in "A View From the Bridge."

Even William Shakespeare isn't immune. In Van Hove's "The Taming of the Shrew," an actress seemed to pee on a table, and he condensed the three plays "Coriolanus," "Julius Caesar" and "Anthony and Cleopatra" into a six-hour, intermission-less event that even he was surprised anyone wanted to see.

"In the beginning, people considered me the slaughterer of plays," van Hove said. "I never understood that really well because that's not my intention. To be a provocateur? That would never interest me for one second because it's so superficial."

Instead, van Hove said he starts with the text and builds from there, ignoring any preconceptions. "I don't follow the rules," he said. "I try to see what's really there."

His actors are expected to have memorized their lines before the first day of rehearsal. Then he methodically goes scene-by-scene through the work from start to finish, working both collaboratively and by instinct.

"Every production is a reinvention of a text. It makes no sense to copy the production that was before," he said. "I don't like theater just to please an audience. That's not my intention, anyway. And I don't think in the long run that theater is good at that."

In the case of "A View From the Bridge," the actors were fitted for costumes long before meeting for the first time. "On Day Three, he took our shoes," said Walker. By the end, they were barefoot with no props on a bare stage.

"It's terrifying but it makes you listen. My god, it makes you listen to each other," said Walker. "You can't hide. Most of us from England are used to hiding behind our scripts for security. It's all gone."

Van Hove says he was reluctant at first to tackle "A View From the Bridge," wondering what he and his team — particularly his longtime production designer, Jan Versweyveld — could do with this Miller classic.

During his research, he came across the playwright's own admission that a previous incarnation of it was "a modern Greek tragedy." That was exactly what the director needed.

"Our vision of it was very simple. It's only a few ideas. But I think it reveals the play I hope in its truth," he said. "Your heart should be onstage. It should be beating."

The van Hove process may be physically and emotionally exhausting, but actors have found it refreshing and challenging.

When "A View From the Bridge" opened to rapturous reviews in London, Walker remembers telling him: "You've ruined me. What am I meant to do now?"


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