Natalya Baldyga’s ‘The King Stag’ reimagines a classic fairy tale for the modern stage

From left: Paxton Crystal, James Williamson and Amanda Rose perform in "The King Stag." Credit: Ted Simpson

Balch Arena Theater, the versatile theater-in-the-round nestled in Tufts’ Aidekman Arts Center, has long provided a space for dazzling drama, comedy and experimental performances. The 2016-2017 season, however, has brought something both old and new to Balch: a seven-show run of “The King Stag” (2016), an adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s eighteenth century Venetian comedy by Assistant Professor of Drama and Dance Natalya Baldyga.

Although she has worked in multiple languages throughout her career and produced translations as a scholar of theater historiography, Baldyga had never completed an entire translation and adaptation before “The King Stag.” According to the adaptation’s prologue, Baldyga first encountered the play in its original Italian as a college student while working for Italian director Giovanni Pampiglione in Rome and returned to Gozzi as a subject in her research and writings throughout her scholarly career.

In an interview with the Daily, Baldyga explained her reasons for approaching “The King Stag” again in 2016 with adaptation in mind.

“The translation that I would give my students to read bothered me because there are sections of this play that are completely improvised. So you really have to make strong choices as a translator … every translation becomes an adaptation,” Baldyga explained. “It always drove me crazy to see that my students had a certain impression of this play, while inside I was thinking, ‘But that’s the translator, not the actual play.’”  

Unsatisfied with the existing translations of “The King Stag,” Baldyga set out to produce her own translation and modern adaptation that would combine her scholarly interests in eighteenth century theater with her artistic love of performative theater.

Magic has a clear role in the fairy tale comedy, which takes place in the kingdom of Serendipity, where King Deramo (played by senior Paxton Crystal) is in search of a wife. Granted with the power of two magical secrets, Deramo is able to see past the deceit of women, including the exuberant Smeraldina (first-year Hanna Carr) and obstinate Clarissa (first-year Jacquie Bonnet), the latter of whom actually loves the knight Leander (senior Blair Nodelman).

Meanwhile, Deramo’s treacherous Prime Minister Tartaglia (senior Yuval Ben-Hayun) attempts to use one of the magic secrets against him to steal his true love Angela (sophomore Amanda Rose) and gain control of the kingdom. However, the magician Durandarte (sophomore Tony Howard) and the rest of the ensemble use their combined power — and a bit of magic — to set things right.

In addition to her dissatisfaction with current translations, Baldyga cited the magic in the show and her love of “magical, non-naturalistic theater” as inspirations for her adaptation.

She also referenced a performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (1791) by the Théâtre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis that she saw four times while pursuing her Ph.D. that solidified her love for theater. 

“People were singing opera and sliding down the set [of “The Magic Flute”], and I had never seen anything like it,” Baldyga recalled. “And I realized I was sitting there with my mouth open. I was a bitter student in grad school, and I was used to criticizing everything. I realized I was watching it as if I was 4 years old.”

It was this gift of wonder that she hopes to bring to audiences and the Tufts community with her adaptation, particularly during today’s political and social climate. In order to situate her adaptation in the context of current events and to prevent the show from seeming like a ‘museum piece,’ Baldyga changed some aspects of the play following the election in November.

“I looked to Alison Carey of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who said that, ‘Our failure to tell stories of collective activism is literally killing us,'” Baldyga said. “After the election, that came back to me, and I decided that if I was going to support democracy, which I do, then I need an ending in which there was collective agency.”

Baldyga also altered the speech given by the magician Durandarte at the end of “The King Stag” to better reflect her adaptation’s message of collective activism and the power of truth-telling to a modern audience.

“Durandarte’s [original] speech at the end is this dig against Enlightenment science and how it’s killing magic,” she continued. “And I thought that that just didn’t fit here, so I gave him an entirely new speech, along the lines of, ‘This is your land. And the stewardship of this land belongs to you. And you are the only ones who can keep it safe from tyranny.'”

Although these changes were made after Baldyga completed her adaptation and work on the actual production had begun, some of the changes were made with input from the student actors. One notable change made by Baldyga was to grant more agency and power to the women in the show, while allowing for open interpretations of the gender and sexuality of its characters. The role of Leander, originally named Leandro and played by a man, was thus played by a woman in this iteration of the play.  

“I wanted to change the gender of at least one of the characters,” Baldyga said. “And so Leander seemed [like] a good choice. I liked that Leander is a knight, so you get someone who has a very active role. That pairing [of Clarissa and Leander] really seemed to work well. When we had auditions, we just loved the actresses [Jacquie Bonnet and Blair Nodelman] who had those roles together. It felt right.”

Nodelman, who plays Leander, explained in an email to the Daily her perspective on the character and the significance of changing their gender identity in the modern adaptation. She explained that the dynamic of the show was altered by the gender of the character, even though it bore great resemblance to the original Leandro.

“While both are knights, there are different circumstances for male and female knights simply by virtue of the body occupying that title,” Nodelman wrote. “This has translated for me into a hypersensitivity of body language. Because Leander is a knight, I’m conscious of my posture, stance, gait and even how I respond to what is happening in the play.”

Nonetheless, Nodelman does not feel that the gender and sexuality changes completely altered the character.

“Early in the rehearsal process, Natalya [Baldyga] and I established that Leander’s sexuality does not define her nor is it the reason Tartaglia does not want Clarissa to marry Leander,” she wrote. “Within the world of the play, her sexuality was inconsequential.”

She nonetheless stressed the significance of representing gay characters in the play.

“For audiences to see a lesbian couple on stage without any political references made toward them is incredibly important,” Nodelman wrote. “Especially with the children’s matinee coming up on Saturday, it’s important to represent several types of relationships and challenge audiences to simply accept a queer relationship without any politics attached.”

Although these changes could be made without disrupting the foundation of the play, one aspect of the original script left Baldyga and the actors at a loss: the improvisational scenes.

“I thought I could teach it because I’ve worked with people in improv, but I realized it wasn’t for me. It became very clear after one rehearsal that I couldn’t do this,” Baldyga said.

Nodelman added that she was “petrified” to do improvisation. 

Luckily, Baldyga got in touch with Matt McMahan, a professor of Drama and Dance at Tufts who also does improvisation in Boston.

“I said, ‘Matt, can you come in and help?’ and in one hour, he had gotten them farther than I could have in months. So if those scenes succeed, that success is due to him,” Baldyga said.

Nodelman said that working with McMahan and the other actors helped her to overcome her fear of improvisation and develop the skills necessary to succeed in those scenes.

“I learned from doing this show and from acting classes that improv is more about gut reactions and instincts. It’s gone from being completely paralyzing to actually one of the best parts of the show for me,” she explained.

Looking forward, Baldyga hopes to publish her adaptation in the near future.

“The goal is to have it published alongside the literal translation so people can compare what the playwright actually said to what the 21st century take on it might be,” she explained. “When I do get it published, the students can also have their names in it as having originated the roles.”

Baldyga believes the play was able to come to fruition only through collaboration with Matt McMahan, as well as with the entire cast, production team and movement director Daniel McCusker.

“Talk about collective agency: the very making of this is the embodiment of that,” Baldyga said. “And that makes me really happy. The fact that I know all these incredibly talented people is the only reason I could make this show.”

“The King Stag” runs today and tomorrow at 8 p.m. in Balch Arena Theater, and the family matinee will be held tomorrow at 2 p.m.