Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: The Tempest (Shakespeare in the Park)

The Tempest
playwright  William Shakespeare
company  Shakespeare in the Park
theater  Delacorte Theater

Jordan Barrow, Louis Cancelmi, Francesca Carpanini, Nicholas Christopher, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Chloe Fox, Rosharra Francis, Thomas Gibbons, Frank Harts, Sunny Hitt, Brandon Kalm, Olga Karmansky, Tamika Sonja Lawrence, Rico Lebron, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Tim Nicolai, Matthew Oaks, Charles Parnell, Chris Perfetti, Rodney Richardson, Laura Shoop, Cotter Smith, Sam Waterston, and Bernard White

director  Michael Greif
set  Riccardo Hernandez
costumes  Emily Rebholz
lights  David Lander
sound  Acme Sound Partners/Jason Crystal
soundscapes  Matt Tierney
music  Michael Friedman
Sam Waterston & Francesca Carpanini
in Shakespeare in the Park's Tempest

The Tempest has Shakespeare’s greatest stage direction: Enter Ariel, invisible.” The one in Winter's Tale about the bear is gonzo, but this has a paradoxical beauty that begs the question, "How do you stage that?" In that sense, it stands for the whole play, which demands inventive staging. By this criterion, the summer’s Tempest in Central Park is a let-down.

The opening storm establishes the tone and range of any Tempest. Here it’s an ultra-conventional bit of confused shouting over realistic SFX of thunder and techy flashes of lightning. After that uninspired curtain-raiser, the lighting is often harsh; the music is live percussion, a cliché of the modern Shake-stage. The design feels all wrong for this elemental play, with its steel gantry trimmed with neon to dominate the set. There is a photorealistic backdrop of waves and a couple phony-looking rocks—the stage could serve for Winter’s Tale or any other play involving a shipwreck. Each of the play’s three plots has a highly theatrical moment—a fantastical banquet, a sumptuous clothes closet, and a marital masque—but all three opportunities are squandered. Plot and sense is subsumed under stage business and emotional telegraphy.

The actors’ stylized, almost syncopated versifying is consistent in method but also includes a tendency to over-emote without communicating sense. The characterizations are also generic. Even Jesse Tyler Fergusson, a sitcom star & legit actor who was so delightful in Comedy of Errors a few seasons back and here the play's jester, lacks pizazz. Of the supporting cast, only Louis Cancelmi’s Caliban feels original and new. He’s got a knock-kneed, simian gait, and speaks as if with a speech impediment to suggest his recent acquisition of language. The lovers have a few earnest moments (note how Miranda pities Caliban through their first scene), but otherwise each plot simply passes the time until the next one.

Sam Waterston, at least, has laid the foundations for a solid Prospero. Dressed in light linens and sandals, he looks like a semi-retired Easthamptonite. But in the first scene he establishes Prospero as a cantankerous grump towards his daughter, then goes further by casting the wizard as Ariel’s slavemaster and Caliban’s torturer. He may overdo it in this scene but he’s having actorly fun with Shak (and that’s more than most of the cast do). His performance stays on this note till the finale, when he learns mercy, absolves the guilty courtiers and drunkards, and even hugs Caliban while ceding the island to him. It’s a strong arc for the character and a spine for Greif’s otherwise limp Tempest.

Louis Cancelmi, Jesse Tyler Ferguson & Danny Mastrogiorgio
in Shakespeare in the Park's Tempest


Shakespeare in the Park's Tempest runs May 27 to July 5 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
photos: Joan Marcus

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Macbeth (Mobile Shakespeare Unit at the Public)

playwright  William Shakespeare
company  Mobile Shakespeare Unit
theater  The Public Theater

Rob Campbell, Keith Eric Chappelle, Jennifer Ikeda, Nicole Lewis, Teresa Avia Lim, Nick Mills, Daniel Pierce, James Udom

director  Edward Torres
set  Wilson Chin
costumes  Amanda Seymour
composer  Michael Thurber
Rob Campbell & Jennifer Ikeda
in the Mobile Shak Unit's Macbeth
Each season, with accessibility in mind, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit strips down a pair of plays and schleps them to under-Shaken New Yorkers—people in shelters, halfway houses, prisons. This rough, gritty Macbeth foregoes the light-footed theatricality and transparent acting of previous MSU work. Instead the company plays in an old-fashioned declamatory style that emphasizes verse over sense and relies on the rhythm to add momentum. A few actors have the resonant voices for this approach—Daniel Pierce (Duncan/Macduff) and Keith Eric Chappelle (Banquo) are particularly easy on the ear—but it cuts against the American style of realistic acting and is tougher for an audience to grasp.

Rob Campbell, in the lead, walks nimbly through Macbeth’s speeches, more of a pensive Hamlet-type than the warrior he’s described as being. Jennifer Ikeda is one of a handful of Shakespearean specialists in NYC but more likely to be cast as Lady Macduff than Lady Macbeth. So, cast as Lady Macbeth, she grabs hold of her opportunity. Her strong, militant portrayal galvanizes her husband and the production. More generally, the company is solid but aside from the witches and Banquo’s ghost, they find few openings to connect with the script or the audience.

The main displays of theatricality come during the witches’ scenes, where prophesies are backed by a scuzzy steel guitar. With its dynamic staging and brisk pace, the show is a little too lean to have its full effect. The speed obscures some fundamental moments, especially the warnings about woods and wombs. This Macbeth is the MSU’s first tragedy, and maybe it shows a limitation of the MSU’s format.
Rob Campbell with Keith Eric Chappelle,
Teresa Avia Lim, Jennifer Ikeda, & Nicole Lewis
in the Mobile Shak Unit's Macbeth

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit's Macbeth runs May 17 thru Jun 7 at the Public Theater on Lafayette.
photos: Joan Marcus

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Red Bull)

’Tis Pity She's a Whore
playwright  John Ford
company  Red Bull
theater  The Duke on 42nd Street

Matthew Amendt, Kelley Curran, Clifton Duncan, Ryan Farley, Ryan Garbayo, Philip Goodwin, Christopher Innvar, Amelia Pedlow, Everett Quinton, Rocco Sisto, Derek Smith, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Auden Thornton, Tramell Tillman, Marc Vietor

director  Jesse Berger
set  David M. Barber
costumes  Sara Jean Tosetti
lights  Peter West
sound  John D. Ivy
music  Adam Wernick
Amelia Pedlow & Matthew Amendt
in Red Bull's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
Although the tightly-knit companies I’ve covered recently have produced inventive work, they also have a major shortcoming. Both Fiasco’s 2 Gents and Bedlam’s 12th Night were comprised entirely of white actors. I passed on the Wooster Group's Troilus and Cressida (AKA Cry, Trojans!) partly because of its racial politics (the Trojans were American Indians, the actors were white; and that's only the tip of the controversy). Meanwhile the Broadway shows in the Shake-sphere’s orbit, Wolf Hall and Something Rotten, have one black man and one black woman between them.

This is not okay. The plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are especially suited to diversity in casting. They are rooted in poetry, theatricality, and fantastical plots; there’s almost nothing ‘realistic’ about them, and plenty that’s artificial. Except in cases where race is specifically a theme (e.g. Othello), Shak offers his producers the chance to make their troupe into a utopia of post-racial opportunity.

So Red Bull gets points simply for diversity in casting their ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. One main role and two supporting roles go to black actors. Their melanin content in no way interferes with John Ford’s vision of an ultra-decadent Renaissance Italy, and their talent abets Jesse Berger’s vision of noble depravity.

Tis Pity is one of the era’s masterpieces unjustly eclipsed by Shakespeare’s reputation—much better than Titus A. or Richard 3. But then the tragedy itself lives in Shak’s shadow. The conventional description of Tis Pity is “What if Romeo and Juliet were siblings?” Ford deliberately nods to R&J by giving the brother a priest and the sister a nurse as confidantes. He revisits the earlier play’s clash between passion and propriety, but from the complex, equivocal viewpoints of Hamlet and Lear. The play climaxes not with a suicide pact but with a murder/suicide.

On the page and in most productions, the brother is the focus of the action. But Berger’s cuts and direction shift focus subtly to the sister, played with great intelligence by Amelia Pedlow. She shows the self-possession of a good Shakespearean ingénue: feminine and smart, alternately frisky and haughty as the situation demands. Her character can seem like a victim, hemmed in by men’s decisions—father, brother, suitors, husband—but Pedlow gives her loss of autonomy a tragic dignity. In that way, she and Berger give the climactic murder/suicide a proto-feminist slant.

Matthew Amendt portrays her fraternal/romantic stage-partner as a bookish man strung out by his Freudian impulses. He tears into the Marlovian audacity of a character made almost drunk by his defiance of convention. The company as a whole gives broad and lusty performances; their pleasure in such lurid plots and colorful characters drives much of the show’s first half. Indeed, as Ford closes off his subplots to focus on the siblings’ mental agitation, the show loses some of its gaudy thrill. Much of the pleasure from this Whore derives from the broad characterizations, pitched to match a play whose bloody finale has the protagonist stabbing his brother-in-law with a dagger already impaled with his sister’s heart!

Ford and Berger’s Tis Pity is a work of aesthetic overload, epitomized by Sara Jean Tosetti’s phenomenal costumes. Take the outfit of the stock idiot fop character: his too-wide ruff, a leopard-print women’s jacket, and clunky black’n’gold heels are fabulously glam while borrowing enough from Jacobean fashion to make the setting specific.

Berger, with his brave cast and savvy designers, exploits the potential latent in Ford’s tragedy. He and Scenic designer David Barbour provide half a dozen entrances to the stage, including a balcony for the heroine. This feature helps him keep the pace quick without tangling the subplots. In fact, this staging is more clear and engaging than many simpler dramas. The interlocking plots move like clockwork. The playing is conversational, emphasizing dialogue and clarity over verse. That’s a smart choice, since the play and production otherwise aim for maximalism. Incest and intrigue has never been so much fun!
Kelley Curran & Clifton Duncan
in Red Bull's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Red Bull's ’Tis Pity She's a Whore runs Apr 14 thru May 16 at the Duke on 42nd Street.
photos: Richard Termine

Friday, May 8, 2015

Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Fiasco/TFANA)

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
playwright  William Shakespeare
company  Fiasco Theater
theater  Theater for a New Audience

Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen, and Emily Young

directors  Jessie Austrian & Ben Steinfeld
costumes  Whitney Locher
set  Derek McLane
lights  Tim Cryan
props  Andy Diaz

Zachary Fine (Crab) and Andy Grotelueschen (Launce)
in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Fiasco’s Two Gentlemen of Verona is a great, rare pleasure, especially for a mad Shakespearean like me: a superb staging of minor Will. I’d never seen 2 Gents and only read it once, back in the mid-’90s. There’s a reason it’s mostly known as the one with a dog. Its plot devices are familiar—a cross-dressing heroine, rings and letters, and a retreat to the forest that loosens inhibitions enough to resolve love’s confusions—but they’re embryonic in form. It's also got a nasty finale, with an attempted rape that's pardoned way too quickly. 2 Gents is easily the worst of Shak trilogy of apprentice comedies (the other two are Shrew and Comedy of Errors), but it points more obviously towards his future as a playwright. The play is an artificial tale of courtly love, Shak’s comic mode for the rest of his career.

Of course it can’t stand up to comparison with his later iterations; 2 Gents is better taken on its own terms or not at all. So Fiasco does that, simply, directly, and brilliantly. Since the verse is obviously written by a rookie, they deliver it in a prosy cadence, focusing on the sentence rather than the line or the idea. The comedians don’t attempt to wring laughs from the quibbles, while the romantics round and shape their roles by adding individuality to the types.

Of the titular gentlemen, Zachary Fine gives the dudley-do-right Valentine a bit of a thick skull, which smooths his friendship with Noah Brody’s scheming Proteus. The women outdo the men (as they should in Shakespearean comedy). As the girl-in-drag Julia, Jessie Austrian shows a great comic/romantic gift as a smart nitwit, and anchors the romantic plot with her screwball charm. Emily Young gives the evening its depth, as the actor who best turns the verse into spoken thought. Her Silvia is a Renaissance socialite who almost instinctively uses her wit to express herself and beguile others.

Including me. Take this bit of courtly courting, where Valentine has written her a love letter:


No madam; so it stead you, I will write
(Please you command) a thousand times as much.
And yet—

A pretty period. Well, I guess the sequel;
And yet I will not name it; and yet I care not.
And yet take this again; and yet I thank you,
Meaning henceforth to trouble you no more.

Silvia’s reply is famously tricky to play, since it’s so obviously artificial. But Young gives each “and yet” a turn, like she’s articulating a particularly complex thought in particularly artful fashion while steering to her point: a polite rejection.

Emily Young (Silvia) & Jessie Austrian (Julia)
in The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Finally, there’s the clown and his dog (which, incidentally, Bernard Shaw named as the best character in Shakespeare; unjust, but he is the best in 2 Gents). Andy Grotelueschen, the company’s shaggy comedian, recounts the escapades of Crab, played by Zachary Fine in black clown nose, idiot grin, and Harpo-like silence. The dog’s a dope, the master’s not much brighter, and they inevitably steal the show.

For 2 Gents’s set, Derek McLane suggests both court and forest by covering the walls and ceiling in cherry blossoms and crumpled pink paper. To break up the stage a bit, two neoclassical columns metamorphose into trees. It has the same formal beauty and artifice as the play itself. 2 Gents is a happy collaboration with Theater for a New Audience. TFANA’s home, the year-old Polonsky Shakespeare Center, has proved to be a great space for Shak—comfortable and spacious, intimate yet communal. Fiasco looks to be in its natural element. The cast remains onstage throughout, playing string instruments and donning bits of costume or just enjoying the show with the audience. All this helps the audience to swallow the improbable and fantastical turns of Shakespearean plot. This 2 Gents is a gem, all the better for being smaller and less familiar than most Shakespeare.

Zachary Fine, Paul L. Coffey, & Andy Grotelueschen
with Noah Brody (Proteus) in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Fiasco's Two Gentlemen of Verona runs April 24 thru May 24 at 262 Ashland Place
photos: Gerry Goodstein

Friday, May 1, 2015

Shakespeare Listings: May in New York City

This is the busy month for Shakespeareans in New York. The spring shows ring their curtains down (let's hope for a downtown revival of Bedlam's Twelfth Night + What You Will) and summer shows start their warm-ups. Here's the hubbub in May:


Don Juan
Pearl Th.

A staging of Molière's most difficult, atypical comedy. He still gives you a rascally servant of an egotistical master who gets what he deserves. But instead of bourgeois hijinks, Don Juan raises a popular character to the level of myth. Like Marlowe's Faustus (below), Molière's Juan wrestles with damnation and earthly pleasures—ultimately it sides with the later, albeit with a strong dose of irony. No notes on the production, except to point out that the Pearl has been rejuvenated by its move to 42nd Street near the Hudson (Signature's old space). Though the audience is still dusty, the shows aren't.
(May 5 - Jun 7)


Classic Stage Company

Christopher Marlowe swipped the autumn from Shakespeare with a memorable epic staging of Tamburlaine pts 1 & 2. This month his legendary tragedy gets a remount for NYC audiences. This is the Elizabethan ur-play, the one that lifted theater to another level. Problem is, the grand speeches about the cosmos and damnation are interrupted by SFX and clowning. That's why it's been done maybe twice in NYC in living memory: in 1965, and before that by a kid named Welles for the WPA in 1937. Chris Noth, of all actors, takes the title role. The closest he's come to classical theater is some Shaw in 1990…
(May 29 - July 2)

Shakespeare as a rock-musical god is about half of Something Rotten
(photo: Joan Marcus)


Roy Arias Stages

Twenty-something Shakespeareans do several shots and then stage a semi-improvised play. Or as they bill it, "a company of professional drinkers with a serious Shakespeare problem." A minor phenomenon in the Theater District, Drunk Shak is the sort of fun gimmick that proves NYC can find a place for hardworking thespians even when they don't have connections or a budget. It runs all summer long, a potential rainy-day alternative to free Shakespeare in the parks.
(May -Sept 6)


Classic Stage Company

In Austin Pendleton’s staging at CSC, Prince Hamlet (Peter Sarsgaard) follows an invisible spirit offstage then circles back moments later with his course set for vengeance. Throughout this production, Pendleton isn’t just banking on his audience’s familiarity with the play, he’s demanding it. His staging only works, when it works at all, through prior knowledge. At times it even seems like a Hamlet in quotes, a sort of three-hour setpiece. It’s abstruse, remote, and finally inaccessible. More words here!
(thru May 10)


Mobile Shakespeare Unit (Public Th.)

There's accessible Shakespeare and then there's the Mobile Shakespeare Unit. This program, run by the Public, literally stages shows out of a van! The team will schlep Will's great tragedy out to community centers, prisons, and homeless shelters around the five boroughs in early May. Then they'll come home to Lafayette for a brief run. The staging is bare-bones (a boom box usually provides music), but the playing (invariably by a diverse cast) is always clear and brisk. The price can't be beat—$20 at the door. And one of my favorite under-known Shakespearean actors, Jennifer Ikeda, plays the Lady of the play!
(May 17-Jun 7)
Broadway (St. James Th.)

A fluffy musical comedy set in the Elizabethan theater, Something Rotten is notable mainly for being a Broadway show not based on some prior work. Instead it imagines a pair of Elizabethan playwrights who anachronistically invent musical theater to compete with Will Shakespeare. So Rotten isn’t exactly groundbreaking: this is the schticky sub-genre of musicals-about-musicals (e.g. The ProducersSpamalot). The creative team is a question mark, with the musical elements coming from Hollywood types; a book by a big-in-Britain comedy writer; and direction/choreo by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon). The big draw is Christian Borle, who earned his Tony for Peter & the Starcatcher, and who here plays the Bard, but Brian d’Arcy James is no slouch onstage either.


Shakespeare in the Park (Public Th.)

The Delacorte, the quintessential Shak in the Park, turns into an island paradise for its first offering. Sam Waterston has probably lost count of his appearances there—the first was As You Like It in 1963 and the last, I believe, was Polonius in 2008. Here he plays Prospero, natch, which he played to infamously bad reviews way back in the early 1970s (his Miranda was Carol Kane!). Michael Greif directs—he once did a lovely R&J at the Delacorte, so this should look picturesque and play well.
(May 27-Jul 5)

Red Bull Theater
at the Duke on 42nd St.

One of the essential English classics that gets crowded out by Shakespeare's dominance. It offers a great pair of leads—its last NYC revival in '92 had Val Kilmer and Jeanne Tripplehorn at the Public—plus some honestly great poetry, dark dark psychology, and several astonishing scenes. Usually (but aptly) described as "What if Romeo and Juliet were siblings?", Tis Pity is decadent but ironic about it: the incestuous couple are just about the only heroic models in a corrupt Italian court. And the Red Bull can be relied on for an inventive sense of theatricality and willingness to get dark. And Tis Pity is dark even by Jacobean standards. Plus it's got one of the most memorable titles in theater history!
(April 14 - May 16)


What You Will
Theater Bedlam
at the Dorothy Strelsin Th.

Twelfth Night, a play that revels in gender ambiguity, is perfectly suited to Bedlam’s fluid method of staging classics. They dub one version What You Will while its twin, Twelfth Night, plays in rep—same cast, different roles. To make the play even more protean, the company double-cast Viola in one version, and swap her gender in the other. More words here and there, plus an interview!
(thru May 2)


Fiasco Theater
at Th. for a New Audience

Fiasco pivots quickly from an acclaimed Into the Woods to present the rare Two Gentlemen. This company made a strong impression a few seasons ago with Cymbeline of all plays, and their Woods extended their style into a non-Shak avenue. The tight camaraderie of the ensemble, a flair for play-acting and for imaginative use of props and bodies, and an approach that foregrounds character rather than versification all make Fiasco a distinctive and potentially trend-setting company. They’ve picked a challenge with Two Gentlemen. It’s a very early one in Shak’s career, full of self-serious poetic romance and broad clowning comedy. It’s very rare to see—in fact, it’s one of only three plays by our man that I’ve never seen! So I’m looking especially forward to seeing what Fiasco does with it.
(April 24 - May 24)


Wolf Hall, pts. 1 & 2
Royal Shakespeare Company
on Broadway (Winter Garden Th.)

I'd include Wolf Hall just because it's the RSC. But the first novel in Hilary Mantel's historical series also covers the same period of history as Henry the 8th, from Cardinal Wolsey's alliance with France to the birth of Anne Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth. More generally, Mantel follows Shak in the way she dramatizes history. This double bill plays out a set of tragic arcs in the English kingdom, by staging a succession of political maneuvers over a decade-plus of time. On the RSC tip, this production is up for several Olivier Awards: best new play and lighting design, plus director Jeremy Herron, and Nathaniel Parker for his King Henry. As a lover of history plays, I'm looking forward to this one. See also my historical guide on Playbill Online!
(thru July 5)


Lincoln Center Festival
July 7-29
Irish innovators take on the classic English history cycle

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot
July 9-27
The free urban Shak celebrates its new LES 'home' and 20th anniversary with a comedy

National Theatre Live
July 15
Chiwetel Ejiofor seeks salvation in the epitome of medieval drama

Lincoln Center Festival
July 22-26
Cheek by Jowl visits NYC with a classic burlesque of authority & Macbeth

Shakespeare in the Park (Public Th.)
Jul 27-Aug 23
Hamish Linklater & Lily Rabe return to Central Park with Dan Sullivan

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot
Jul 30-Aug 15
This free summer Shak returns, having survived the loss of its LES space (more condos!)

Pearl Th.
Sep 8-Oct 31
Eric Tucker of Bedlam casts 5 actors to play Puck and co.

National Theatre Live
Oct 15
Everyone's favorite Cumberbatch plays Hamlet in London, you watch him in Manhattan

Atlantic Th.
November 2015
A musical based on Much Ado, with music by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong (?!)

Classic Stage Co.
March 2016
F. Murray Abraham plays a Jew; the play's a 18th-c. German response to Shylock

Classic Stage Co.
March 2016
CSC partners with Columbia Drama's grad students to stage Shak for younger audiences

King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings
March 24 - May 1, 2016
David Tennant is the matinee draw as Richard 2, with Antony Sher's Falstaff for ballast

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review: Twelfth Night at Bedlam

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
playwright  William Shakespeare
company  Bedlam

Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe, Eric Tucker

director/set/sound  Eric Tucker
costumes  Valérie T. Bart
lights  Les Dickert
props  Violeta Picayo
music  Tom O'Keefe & Ted Lewis

Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe, & Eric Tucker
in Bedlam's Twelfth Night

Bedlam’s Twelfth Night takes a more serious view of Shakespeare’s play than its twin in rep, What You Will. This version is a melancholy show about unrequited love rather than a frisky, love-drunk comedy. Maria has a yen for Sir Toby, Malvolio mopes in Olivia’s friend-zone, and neither Olivia nor Orsino know quite how to win Viola—who is, incidentally, the only one giddy at the prospect of love. The company again plays multiple roles, mostly recast although Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe stick with Malvolio and Feste. But everyone’s delivery is more subdued and introspective than in Bedlam’s other staging—and more realistic as well, with the script being played as dialogue more than poetry.

This prosy style grounds the characters in a post-college drift (Sir Toby is an alcoholic bro, Sir Andrew his stoner pal). But it doesn’t prevent the trio of Orsino/Viola/Olivia from shining in the romantic scenes. In a play-appropriate bit of perverse casting, Viola is played by a man, Eric Tucker, as female; the male Orsino is a woman, Andrus Nichols; only Olivia is conventionally gender-appropriate Susannah Millonzi. The first scene between Viola and Olivia just swings, staging a Shakespearean battle of wit and metaphor that’s absolutely charming and clever, and shows just how, why, and when Olivia falls in love. O’Keefe has a similar comfort with the Fool’s paradoxes, and for good measure he steals many scenes with his country-folk guitar. Lewis goes furthest, however, as Malvolio.

Generally I’m wary of stagings that play up sympathy for Malvolio. But in this melancholy take on Twelfth Night, his one-sided feelings for Olivia have more humanity than I’ve ever seen. Lewis plays him as an uptight cynic, vaguely misogynist, with an obvious crush on his jaded best friend. He’s a ripe victim for the bros and Maria, but he’s too familiar a type for that humiliation to wash as simple hijinks. Anyway, there are plenty of extraordinarily clever moments of staging that are Bedlam’s signature. Scenes that should present problems for a five-actor troupe, like the climax that has everybody meet face-to-face, are finessed with ingenious theatricality. And so the show resolves itself with Viola and her brother smooching their partners. With Tucker playing both twins, part of the joke is that the director ends the play in a clinch with both leading ladies, even if one is playing a man. This Twelfth Night, which starts in melancholy, ends in knowing laughter.

Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi, Eric Tucker,
& Andrus Nichols in Twelfth Night

Bedlam's Twelfth Night runs from Mar 13 thru May 2 at 312 W. 36th St.

photos: Jenny Anderson

Friday, April 24, 2015

Interview: Eric Tucker of Bedlam

To celebrate Will Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday (which was yesterday, April 23), I got you a gift! Last month I interviewed Eric Tucker, the artistic director of Bedlam, during his company’s rehearsals for a double-staging of Twelfth Night and What You Will. My article got aborted but I didn’t want to waste the work, especially since I found Tucker very insightful about how Shakespeare works. So to celebrate the great playwright’s life and work, here’s an edited transcript of our conversation in March!
Bedlam in What You Will
(photo: Jenny Anderson)
How are rehearsals going?

Not bad, not bad. We have good days and bad days. Sometimes a lot of good stuff comes out and some days we’re nowhere.

Well you’ve bitten off a lot with two versions of Twelfth Night at the same time. How did that idea come about?

We were actually going to do Twelfth Night in rep with The Country Girl, the [Clifford] Odets play. We weren’t able to get the rights though. So I was thinking I wanted to find another play while we were working on Twelfth Night. But you know, in rehearsal you come up with these ideas that could be cool but they don’t fit in the play you’re doing. So then I thought maybe it would be fun to do it two different ways.

How are you approaching each version of the play?

Well they’re both with five actors, the same actors. We go into the rehearsal room every day and we all try a lot of things and talk about it a lot. We don’t plan things out or have anything programmed. It’s a team effort.

So we started approaching it from a place of what the themes of love were that we might pull out from each one. And one was about the trials and tribulations of love and how difficult it can be, but hopefully the message is that it can end up rewarding and exciting and worth it all. And then with the other one, we were looking at it as love being a madhouse or a sickness or disease, and it doesn’t always end up well.

I don’t think that’s exactly where each one is now, several weeks later. Now we’re just figuring out what the language of each one is, what the world is, what the rules are and what each one of them can hold aesthetically. Sometimes we’ll have an idea and think, ‘That’s better for the other version.’ So it’s like a devised piece in many ways. 
Bedlam in Hamlet
(photo: Elizabeth Nichols)
Is that similar to the approach you took for Saint Joan or Hamlet, or last fall with The Seagull and Sense and Sensibility? Did you go in without a plan and instead discovered and experimented? Or is this a new approach?

It depends on the play. With Joan, I had done it in Los Angeles with three actors. It turned out pretty good but there were things I still wasn’t satisfied with. It was very hard with three people. I always knew I wanted to do it again, I loved the play so much. So when I came to New York and formed a company, I thought that would be a good one to start with, just add another person to make life a little easier. But I had a road map of that one already, there was a blueprint for me as a director.

When we added Hamlet, I had directed the play many times, played it once. But I knew basically how I wanted to split the roles up amongst us. I knew that I wanted both plays to be in the same world and be interchangeable in terms of the visuals. But other than that, in terms of how we would tell it, the aesthetic was that we were constantly just experimenting.

And that was what I did in the fall too. I had a vision for what I thought Sense and Sensibility would be. But when things are very actor-driven, you need time to play and experiment. It doesn’t always look like what you think in your head. Or you get surprised by these things you never thought of that the actors are doing. And I like to be open to that.

Do you think there’s something to Shakespeare that allows for that sense of play and exploration that more realistic theater doesn’t have?

I do think Shakespeare allows for that. There’s almost no stage directions, nothing very descriptive other than what’s in the text. There’s so much left to our own imaginations that you can do just about anything with them. Oftentimes that leads to them having a shell put on them, a time and place that gets chosen because maybe the costumes will look cool or—I don’t know, I think if you do something like that with Shakespeare you have to think about what that means for the play in depth. But also there’s such a freedom with that, because you can tell the story in a modern way. I think when they’re done at the speed of thought, when they’re done quickly and economically, then a modern audience still gets it. So you don’t underestimate an audience.

Again, I think it’s just because so much is left for us to decide. If you follow the text and the stage directions are there, but it’s really open to play. You can see five Twelfth Nights a year and get five different types of storytelling. His plays, the stories are so fantastic. There’s so much about human nature and the characters are so three-dimensional that we’re always finding new stuff. I think it was Ben Kingsley said how everyone, whether they’re male or female, has a Hamlet in them, because he’s written so completely and fully. How could we get tired of seeing it? If we’re seeing someone else play it we’re seeing this whole new person.

That leads me to another question. You did Chekhov last fall, which has a sense of realism, a ‘you’ve gotta have a samovar onstage’ type of attitude that doesn’t necessarily fit with Bedlam’s style. What sort of things do you look for in scripts to enable your aesthetic of activity and movement? How do you approach a script that’s rooted in realism?

One is the language. The dialogue. There’s a rhythm to it that’s slightly, I don’t know—it’s like the first time when you read Angels in America or a Stephen Adly Guirgis play. Some people have this gift to write characters that lift off the page and you just see it up there. And those two guys, you can do almost anything with them. We know where they’re set and we know the situation between two people. They might be in an apartment having a fight but that apartment can be anything, you can put it on any stage, bare or not bare.

It’s also definitely plays that you read and think that can only be a play, it couldn’t be a movie. Then you can really get in and have fun with it and give the audience something that can only be gotten in a theater. That’s what I look for, that’s the key, the theatricality. That real gift of language and dialogue is rare. There are a lot of really good plays that are new, but it’s rare to get one that is extraordinary, they don’t come along quite as often—the kind of boldness that Kushner has, or Rajiv Joseph, who wrote Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. There’s just so much magic in them even when they’re highly violent or when the subject matter is dark. That’s hard to come by. So that’s why I go back so often to classics.

Are there any classics that you feel would not mesh with your aesthetic? Do you pull Sophocles off the shelf and say, “I just don’t see how I could stage this?”

No, not really, nothing comes to mind. I get excited to tackle anything. I think when a story’s exciting or I feel like we have the cast for it, I get excited about it. But I can’t think of anything that I would say I don’t think that would mesh at all. For me it comes down to a story that gets me excited, then some sort of image of how I could present it, and then I go.

You mentioned story and you also mentioned language. That’s surprises me simply because the first thing I think of when I think of a Bedlam style is the movement and the use of space. How did you developed that aesthetic?

Early on, when I was in college in Rhode Island, I saw an outdoor production of Midsummer Night’s Dream—in Washington Square Park, I think. And the audience was being led around and we would watch a scene then go somewhere else. I kind of fell in love with that aesthetic for outdoor theater. I started doing that when I went back to college, learning how to move the audience around and keep them involved in a way that wasn’t their average experience in the theater.

Then I went to Trinity Rep for graduate school, and the aesthetic there has always been about the audience and how the actors relate to the audience. It’s always thought out: ‘what will the relationship be for this story? where will we put them and where will we be? and will that change?’ For me, I just kept switching that up. One time I did a Macbeth with everybody on moving risers and we moved them in their seats throughout.

Also, I’d walk into a space and know I have to do this story here, and I’d ask, “How will it fit into the space from corner to corner and wall to wall, not just necessarily up on the stage?” Sometimes I think the space should come first; it’s nice when that can happen, though it’s rare. So the audience feels like they’re in on something from the start, when they come in the doors. Over the years I’ve tried to keep exploring the nature of the audience and the actors, and how we’re in relation to each other. I think that’s at the heart of it.

Taking it back to Shakespeare, how do you conceive of his plays’ relationship to the audience?

What’s great is that it’s already there from the start. These solilioquies were meant to be spoken to the audience, so you’ve got a person just speaking out, asking them questions. There’s also something about the speed at which the scenes come together. Things just go, and I think it should be as seamless as you can make it. In the modern day, people cut a lot of text and then they add a lot of transitions. I do that too, I suppose, but I think it’s nice when you can keep it as seamless as possible. That is part of the relationship to the audience, because you’re keeping them in the story and on their toes.

The great thing about Shakespeare is that you can take one of his plays into the library of a school or you can do it around a campfire or on a Broadway stage or in a warehouse. He says it to us in Henry the 5th: ‘you’re going to have to bring something to this. You have to imagine armies, you have to imagine location.’ And I love that, I love to go and watch people pull something out of thin air. With Shakespeare, his mode of storytelling was to pull things out of thin air. He didn’t have anything but that wooden O. It’s magic, actors have to perform magic. And that’s the stuff that excites theatergoers, because it takes us by surprise.


Bedlam's Twelfth Night and What You Will runs from Mar 13 thru May 2 at 312 W. 36th St.