Liviu Ciulei, who was voted best director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 and who led the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the 1980s, when it won a Tony Award, died on Tuesday in Munich. He was 88.
The cause was multiple organ failure, his stepson, Thomas, said. Ciulei had homes in Munich and in Bucharest, Romania.
Ciulei (whose name was pronounced LEEV-you CHEW-lay) made films in his native Romania, but in the United States he was best known for his provocative interpretations of classic plays. “Contemporary art,” he once said, “is one that brings all the conflicts of the world into the poem, into the theater, into the painting.” And the world’s enduring turmoil often rumbled, at least subliminally, through his presentations.
He made his American debut in 1974 at Arena Stage in Washington with Georg Buchner’s “Leonce and Lena,” a 19th-century German absurdist political satire. The New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes called the production “electric” and “eclectic,” describing it as “a sort of time capsule of world theater right up to the foolish epics of Brecht and the epic follies of Ionesco.” Ciulei, Barnes wrote, “is one of the most imaginative directors in the world.”
Among his other notable productions were a “Hamlet” at Arena Stage in 1978, set in Bismarck-era Germany, which Richard Eder in The Times called “not the triumph just of a season but of a decade”; “The Inspector General,” Gogol’s skewering of bureaucracy, which appeared on Broadway at Circle in the Square, also in 1978; and a second “Hamlet,” less well received, at the Public Theater in New York, starring Kevin Kline, in 1986. Among many other productions at Arena, he directed “The Lower Depths,” “Don Juan” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”
His first production at the Guthrie, in 1981, was a “Tempest” that depicted Prospero’s kingdom as an island surrounded by a bloody moat with cultural artifacts -- the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa among them -- floating in it. His “Midsummer Night’s Dream” underscored a psychological savagery and sadism in the play’s romantic roundelay, depicting Bottom, the leader of the jesterlike players, as humiliated to the core by the indifference of his royal audience, a comment, some felt, on Ciulei’s own lack of recognition by U.S. audiences.
“I think there is, in this country, a certain prudence or refusal to be troubled, much encouraged by TV,” he said. “Many people still want the theater to be like cool lemonade when it’s hot.”
Trained as an architect, Ciulei was a set designer and an actor as well as a director, and his work was characterized by a precise visual sense. He believed that physical form suggested meaning, not just in design but in performance, and rather than having actors create actions to suggest the emotions of a moment, he encouraged them to begin with the actions and seek their psychological underpinnings.
“With Liviu, every moment was born out of a form, a shape,” said Zelda Fichandler, a founder and former artistic director of Arena Stage. “He would say, ‘Now she puts her head down, so her hair falls over her face,’ and he taught actors to find what generated the cause of that action.”
Liviu Ioan Ciulei was born in Bucharest on July 7, 1923. His father ran a large construction company, and though he preferred that his son become an architect rather than an actor, he gave young Liviu a Bucharest theater, where he made his acting debut as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1946. In the 1950s Ciulei joined the Bulandra Theater, a leading Bucharest troupe, and became its artistic director in 1963. The U.S. director Alan Schneider saw his work there and recommended him to Fichandler at Arena as the finest theater director in Europe.
“Liviu was the first, and maybe the only, director I ever hired without seeing his work,” Fichandler said.
Ciulei’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his stepson, he is survived by his wife, the former Helga Reiter, whom he married in 1979. Ciulei was artistic director of the Guthrie for five seasons in the early 1980s, during which he redesigned the main stage and added challenging productions by himself and directors like Andrei Serban and Peter Sellars to the schedule and was generally credited with bringing increased national attention to the theater. In 1982 the Guthrie won the Tony given annually to an outstanding regional theater. He later taught at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts and at Columbia University.
In Romania Ciulei was also known as a filmmaker. His films included “Padurea Spanzuratilor” (“Forest of the Hanged”), about a soldier who takes part in the execution of a deserter during World War I and is overcome by guilt. Shown at Cannes, the film earned Ciulei the festival’s best-director award and he considered it, at least in part, to be his finest work.
“The most beautiful scene I have ever directed in my career is the last scene of’ ‘Padurea Spanzuratilor,”’ he said. “We see a young peasant woman preparing the last meal for the man she loves who is sentenced to death by hanging -- a man, a woman, bread, salt and wine, love, life and death.”
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