Tony Estrella is not a masochist. No, really. If rights had been available for the most recent adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, he wouldn’t have taken on the task of boiling down some 6000 lines of verse in the six-hour play to reduce it to 2-1/2 hours of iambic pentameter for his Gamm production. Honestly.
“There was fun to be had there,” he admits. “As a writer taking an historical story 200 years earlier than when he is writing, here we are a couple of hundred years after he was writing, doing the same thing. So I felt some leeway there. He had already got that ball rolling when he did it.”
Also, Schiller took liberties with history, romanticizing a political marriage and making heroic a Don Carlos who was thought to be unstable because of inbreeding.
Estrella has had practice with the writing challenge. A few years ago, on spec he did a stage adaptation of Morality Play, the mid-’90s novel by British writer Barry Unsworth. The author liked the result, so Estrella expects to eventually get the rights to produce it.
Don Carlos fits the bill as an election season offering because it deals with an epic political power struggle, but the artistic director considered using a play right off the shelf. A chamber version of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins was a possibility a year ago because then “there was a level of fatigue about presidential politics.” No longer, Estrella feels.
“We’re at a time of what could be great, great, great change — and certainly I hope it is — it seemed like the right story to tell,” he said of the Schiller play. He was sitting in the lobby of the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre before a rehearsal, peering from under an orange bill cap. “The story resonates really loudly with what’s going on today.”
Not one line remains from the original. Estrella worked from an 1847 literal translation to fashion a new text. But this was not an ordinary adaptation.
“With such a gigantic play, it’s one thing to cut a quarter away,” he said, using as an example Hamlet, whose productions are usually cut by an hour or so. “And it’s another thing to cut two thirds of a play away. All of a sudden you’re stuck with: How is the structure going to get back together? So I made the decision very early on, knowing I was going to need a lot of time to do it, and also to give me a little trial and error period.”
Having nearly a year to work on it allowed him to rewrite the first act in a more relaxed free verse after completing it in blank verse, to test the alternative.
“I thought, ‘What if this was more a free verse version, where the line breaks, the phrasing possibly might fit better in the mouth of the contemporary actor,’ ” he said. “Then, of course, you come to find out — I should have noticed from the beginning, but it was a good exercise to go through — after looking at them side by side, realizing that like with Shakespeare, and I find it as an actor, it’s actually much easier and much more freeing to act this in a stricter verse form. So we went back to that.”