Starting Over

It was in the late 1980s that Rob Bundy got his first close look at Houston theater. He was touring with John Houseman's acting company when they passed through the city and, much to his surprise, he was impressed by what he found. "I saw [Houston Grand Opera] was doing Nixon in China," Bundy says, "and I thought, 'Whoa, there is real theater in Houston.' "

That brief introduction may have been one reason why, when Stages contacted the young director about taking a job as their artistic director, he confounded his friends by saying yes. Bundy has been touted as one of the more gifted young American directors, and some of his associates had trouble seeing Houston as a logical stop on the road to success. (One playwright, Bundy recalls, left the disbelieving message, "Houston? You're going to Houston?" on his New York answering machine.) But by the time he accepted Stages' offer, Bundy had taken another quick look at Houston's theatrical offerings, and while he wasn't as excited by what he saw during his rounds of the city's theaters during a May interview session, he did see how he might fit in. Though he found competence, Bundy says, he also found a lack of excitement and "no theater doing great productions of new plays." And that, of course, is precisely the gap he says he plans to fill at Stages.

Some might find arrogance in such an assertion, but with Bundy, it comes across more as simple confidence. Bundy is a man who seems to run on natural Benzedrine. He bounces a bit when he walks, makes lightning fast connections in conversation, and carries his lean frame as if directed by a homing device. Perhaps because he's tall and thin with dark hair, it's not impossible to squint and come up with Tommy Tune's long-lost brother -- a comparison that has no bearing in terms of Bundy's theatrical tastes. Rather than sweetly cheerful song and dance numbers, Bundy has been noted by critics from Louisville to New York for his ability to draw out complex nuances in both contemporary plays and modern classics. The young director is ready, he says, "to be the new bad boy in Houston theater."

That may be just what Stages needs. Over the last three years, the company, once considered among the city's best, has undergone a flailing search for identity, a problem exacerbated by the lack of a full-time artistic director. Despite Sidney Berger's aid as a part-time consultant, Stages has lost about two-thirds of its subscriber base since 1993; Bundy, it's hoped, will get the numbers back up, even though the sort of people who make up those numbers is likely to change. While Berger's role was akin to that of a captain steering an oil tanker away from disaster, Bundy's artistic direction is more likely to resemble Italian race car driving, stylishly outfitted and innovative. There will be, Bundy indicates, no more martini-toting, WASP angst productions of A.R. Gurney for the matching linen-ensemble audience faction (think last season's A Cheever Evening), nor will there be cannabis-inspired Barry Manilow for the throngs of young professionals who took a night off from Seinfeld (last season's The Drunkard).

Indeed, the mere mention of those plays causes Bundy to cringe. What Stages audience members can expect instead, he says, is the same kind of theater that's highlighted his bi-coastal career -- productions such as his American premiere of The Pitchfork Disney, a dark play about 28-year-old twins who live in a perpetual childhood, and his Circle Rep production of Gray's Anatomy, a play that marries the Wizard of Oz fable with a devastating illness that contaminates a small town's water supply. But however daring Bundy might be in his selection of plays, theatergoers are unlikely to complain if their choices get more intriguing and entertaining -- a contention that is Stages' new bottom line.

One of Bundy's real gifts as a director, his colleagues and critics say, is his talent for choosing scripts that recognize theater as a malleable art form. "I want people who revel in the live event to come to the theater, people who come ready to roll up their sleeves instead of ready to go to church," Bundy says. Though new plays that deal with universal themes such as human frailty are the centerpiece of his directing experience, Bundy is also well versed in the classics, and usually balances his seasons with at least one revival. His creativity in direction is balanced with a rare ability to distill a play's essence down to a sentence, an exercise he uses when he teaches direction. The practice is part of what leads to the deeper layers in his productions. For example, a play about a nurse finding a swan -- such as Stages' season opener, The Swan -- might resonate with layers of Greek mythology.

Trained as an actor at the Academy of American Dramatic Arts, the blossoming director found it annoying that he didn't have input into production values such as set design. Arching an eyebrow, Bundy says turning to directing was a symptom of his "escalating megalomania." But it's also led to memorable moments such as the time in Hartford, Connecticut, when he walked into a parking lot following a production he'd directed of David Mamet's Oleanna and found a couple arguing about the play, ready to duke it out before they were willing to get back into their car together.

That level of engagement is obviously what Stages is hoping Bundy can bring its audience, and there's a telling undercurrent of excitement at the theater, one that has to do with regaining Stages' role as a venue for provocative work. In his rolled-up shirt sleeves and plain chinos, it's not hard to believe that the casual, but intensely focused, Bundy might well be the person who can return Stages to its position of glory, where more than one Houston theatergoer fondly remembers its not only engaging its audience, but keeping the rest of Houston theater -- including the Alley -- on its toes.