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Liviu Ciulei

( b. Jul 07, 1923 Bucharest, ROMANIA - d. Oct 25, 2011 Munich, GERMANY ) Male
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 in Munich. He was 88.

The cause was multiple organ failure, his stepson, Thomas, said. Mr. Ciulei had homes in Munich and in Bucharest, Romania.

Mr. 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 Büchner’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.” Mr. Ciulei, Mr. 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 Mr. Ciulei’s own lack of recognition by American 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Ciulei joined the Bulandra Theater, a leading Bucharest troupe, and became its artistic director in 1963. The American director Alan Schneider saw his work there and recommended him to Ms. 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,” Ms. Fichandler said.

Mr. Ciulei’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his step

Productions Date of Productions
The Inspector General
[Play, Revival]
  • Directed by Liviu Ciulei
Sep 21, 1978 - Nov 19, 1978
1986 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director of a Play
  Liviu Ciulei (for "Hamlet") [nominee]
Find out where Liviu Ciulei and are credited together