Though he modestly denies the charge, director John Kaufmann has been a theater darling for years, and rightly so. Bravely eschewing the trendy irony and cheap camp that are the calling cards of many talentless half-wits, Kaufmann approaches performance with an unfashionable sincerity, wide-eyed reverence ("I'm just a dorky, optimistic, gee-whiz cornball"), and a love of carefully choreographed chaos.

The list of shows he's done sounds like a litany of sappy groaners: There was linger (an audience-participatory exploration of what it means to "live in the moment"); Starball (Jung, constellations, and communal songwriting in a planetarium); and Line One (an entire show of actors channeling people in the world via cell phone). Somehow, Kaufmann always found a way to pull it off, each time turning a potential Hindenburg into something original, revelatory, and entertaining.

Then came Antony and Cleopatra.

One local paper called it "stuffy and laboriously paced." Another said it "doesn't fair [sic] very well." The Stranger's Bret Fetzer gave it a middling review. Nobody I know liked it, and while I didn't think it was god-awful, it was passionless and disappointing. Kaufmann had some great ideas--pitting Egyptian opulence against Roman austerity, live marimba, a clever war machine--but the production never caught fire.

Sitting on his roof last week, opening a beer, Kaufmann was cheerful but vigorously defensive of his much-criticized production. "My inner fantasy about the show is like it's a movie that wasn't so big in its original release, but in 20 years will be a cult classic," he said. "It was a beautifully imperfect show that everybody should've seen. People are not going to see a better production, even if they didn't like it."

Still, the criticisms stung, as they always do. (Kaufmann waited impatiently for the first bad review--in the Seattle Weekly--to leave the shelves, but the very next week there was another slap at Antony and Cleopatra buried in a review of something else.) He politely refused to bitch about reviewers, but clearly thought his production was, well, underappreciated.

Perhaps he's right and we're mistaken: Lots of brilliant work goes unrecognized by critics and crowds who prefer a quick punch line to anything that requires patience. But no matter how fine your ideas, they aren't worth a squirt of piss if nobody can stay awake long enough to appreciate them. Kaufmann's track record suggests that he knows what he's doing, but we might have just watched him run smack dab into a wall.

The interview was coming to a close: It was getting dark, he had to keep packing for his morning flight to Valencia to plug Starball at an international planetarium conference, and we had run out of beer.

"Not-so-great reviews aren't so bad, I guess," Kaufmann said as he drained the last bottle. "They give you someplace to go." Some nearby fireworks erupted.

"Does that happen often?" I asked, referring to the fireworks.

"Only when I make a succinct point."

brendan@thestranger.com

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