Perhaps the reason Frank Galati is so fond of hats is because he wears so many of them. At 42, he is a full professor in the department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, a much-in-demand director of plays and operas, a playwright and adaptor and, to top it off, one of Chicago’s most popular actors. Last season he starred as Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre’s annual A Christmas Carol, then adapted and starred in Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog at the neighboring Northlight Theatre. In between, he adapted the comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces for the stage and directed a production of it at Louisiana State University. This season he staged a new version of Gogol’s The Government Inspector at the Goodman and directed the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in a holiday revival of You Can’t Take It With You, filling in the cracks with work on an opera libretto comissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago Center for American Artists (of which he is also a faculty member). And, oh yes, on Jan. 1 Galati became associate director of the Goodman, second in command to Robert Falls, who assumed his new mantle on the same date. As for a hat, give Galati the actor one to fool around in and you’ll have not only a set of mug shots for publicity but also a complete character, evolved from the head down.
The appointment of Galati and Falls to the Goodman was well received in the Chicago theatre community—both artists are highly regarded, both have built their careers in the city. In the past they have complemented each other well, working together on productions of Travesties, The Importance of Being Earnest and Mother Courage and Her Children. Like Falls, Galati focuses on the design aspects of a work very early on. “In the work I’ve been privileged to do with Bob,” he says, “it’s always been evident that we share the thrill of developing an atmosphere, an ambiance, a context for performance, with a designer. That’s the part I find most exhilarating—the whole imaging process that the director and designer go through together.”
Galati makes light of his academic credentials, but they color his overview of theatre, which he speaks of in classical terms: “Theatre is the locus of a society’s spiritual treasure,” he ventures. “It is a place to which the city, the polis, is drawn in order to celebrate or witness events that will prepare them for events in the real world. When you go to the theatre, very often you’re going to a funeral. Or you’re going to a wedding. The theatre is something of a rehearsal for those events in real life.”
Such quasi-religious observations are tempered by a shrewd awareness of the reach and impact of theatre in a modern, mass-media world. “It would be foolish and pretentious to say that Mozart and Beethoven and Bach are better for society than Barry Manilow or Michael Jackson,” Galati contends. “And it’s not a question of preference. Not everyone goes to church, either. But going to theatre is an act of faith. And for those who do go, real spiritual nourishment can be provided, if the theatre experience is realizing its potential.”
The best way for that to happen, Galati believes, going a step further, is to capture and hold the audience—so once in the playhouse, he becomes a pragmatic master of what works and what doesn’t. For the Goodman’s Government Inspector, he found it necessary to “plunge myself into a lot of primary research material, because of the remoteness of the play’s historical world, and because of its stylistic problems, which are just legion.” The scholarship, however, was eventually concealed behind a lively, raucous production and a modern, colloquial translation by Milton Ehre and Fruma Gottschalk. Galati spiced the show with slapstick (feather beds so deep that the actors disappeared in them) and took it at an almost breakneck pace. An onstage keyboard musician, slugging vodka and dressed as a peasant, jumped into the action and sometimes commented on it. The use of puppets and flashpot effects moved the production toward the exaggerations of bathos and the demonic, which Galati sees at the heart of much of Gogol’s work. Critics had some reservations, but agreed that it was quite a roller-coaster ride.
Then, as if to demonstrate the completely opposite side of his artistic personality, Galati directed the Steppenwolf ensemble and several guest artists in a straightforwardly naturalistic, sweetly merry but low-key version of You Can’t Take It With You. The production was a sell-out hit.
At the Goodman, Galati will direct one mainstage production a season, participate in one other as writer or actor, and, of course, share planning responsibilities with Falls, as well as duties for the Goodman’s still-developing Studio Theatre. For the first Falls-Galati season, he is considering several American novels as subiects for stage adaptation.
While the Goodman—a big house with a big budget—offers opportunities for Galati to dream such grand theatrical dreams, it also makes him duly aware of institutional limitations. “There’s a certain pretentiousness that comes along with being a so-called ‘flagship’ theatre,” he reasons. “The Goodman doesn’t have a will of its own—it doesn’t have a particular profile or personality. It’s really just a building and a group of people. In the past there have been occasions where production values have swamped a play, or a play has been too cumbersome intellectually to delight and divert its audiences. Theatre can crumble under its own weight.
“On the other hand, one can do an outrageously theatrical production in a storefront, and just dazzle everyone by the sheer overcoming of unsurmountable obstacles,” he adds with a characteristic grin. “One often forgets how unsurmountable an obstacle a big budget can be, a big theatre can be, a lot of scenery can be. They can actually be harder to deal with, and harder to succeed with, than a couple of planks and a passion.”
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