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Visiting artist Hafler directs 'The Old Law'

In a room postered with fliers proclaiming, "The old must die," Max Hafler is the only one with gray hair. Directing a cast of MIT students in a rehearsal for Dramashop's production of "The Old Law," a play in which the generation gap is taken to extremes, Hafler alternately bounds onto the stage of Kresge Little Theater, slouches in a front-row seat, or ranges up and down the aisle.

Set in a society that legislates that men over 80 and women over 60 are useless and must be put to death, "The Old Law" has "powerful resonances for now," says Hafler, a visiting artist at MIT.

As soon as the law goes into effect, young rich people gleefully send their parents to be executed. Young wives, hungry for freedom and inheritances, wait impatiently for their old husbands to be put to death. The world goes mad.

Hafler lists the play's themes as "the rule of law, the nature of evil, euthanasia and the value of youth and age."

Proving that today's youth has no advantage over his own age and experience, Hafler jumps onto the stage to instruct his young actors. He staggers across the stage to illustrate how rollicking and rowdy a drunk can be, and intones, bellows, bleats and barks a single line to display the vocal emphases a character could show.

In other cases, he tones down the theatrics. "Try not to use your face so much," he advises senior Helen McCreery, who plays the heroic Hippolita in Hafler's tragi-comic adaptation of the 17th century play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. "You've a great face and you use it a lot. Try to be still, to internalize."

Hafler says he likes to use people to their limit and not just as the role they are assigned to play. Most of the actors have several parts, including statues, old people, hunting dogs, lawyers -- even abstract entities in a character's mind.

"Max is more into diction and group work than any director I've had," says freshman Ashley Micks, who's making her Dramashop debut. Because so many of the character representations are stylized and abstract, Micks says, the nonspeaking ensemble parts require as much work as the parts with lines, so the audience will be able to understand what's happening.

"I am very excited by group work and ensemble physical playing," Hafler says. Encouraging his actors to loosen up, he insists that their characterizations be big, even as they internalize the underlying emotions. "I want you to feel brave enough to really take your time."

Each character, he says, has an arc. "You've got to find the journey in this play," he tells his cast, "Even if it's not naturalistic." Then, with proprietary pride, he adds, "There are journeys because I put them there."

Hafler first adapted the play for a production at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, earning praise from Irving Wardle for The (London) Independent, who wrote, "the piece connects across four centuries with a powerful jolt of moral electricity."

Hafler has lived in County Galway, Ireland, for more than seven years. He has worked as a director with Galway Youth Theatre and teaches in the theater M.A. program at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Earlier this year Hafler completed a short residency at MIT, working in ensemble and devising, giving a lecture on Marlowe and doing voice work in Shakespeare class.

"The Old Law" runs Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 9-11 and Feb. 16-18 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Little Theater. Tickets are $8, $6 for students. For more information, call x3-2908 or visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 8, 2006 (download PDF).

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