Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Radical Shakespeare of Lear deBessonet

This summer ended with Lear deBessonet’s second annual weekend run at the Delacorte—The Winter’s Tale. I’d say her extravaganzas are the best Shakespeare in NYC. She doesn’t follow any of the modern approaches to staging the plays: no suits 'n' cellphones or pretty stage pictures. In fact, she seems to start from a different set of first principles about theater—who belongs onstage, what makes a performance good, and how to organize a company—and that makes her shows stand far apart from the mainstream.
Cookie and the gang crash the Delacorte
for The Winter's Tale
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The Winter’s Tale is a late romance with a lot of space for theatricality—it’s one of my favorites, and the one with the stage direction “Exit pursued by a Beare.” deBessonet uses the play as a narrative scaffold for dance interludes and musical numbers performed by a diverse set of NYC arts groups. With composer Todd Almond, choreographer Chase Brock, and the Public Works Project, she finds room in The Winter’s Tale for kids from the Children’s Aid Society and seniors from the Brownsville Recreation Center. A chamber ballet and children’s choir set the wintery mood at the top of the show; a Dixieland jazz band, stilt-walkers, and Chinese parade dragons fill out the pastoral festival in Act 4; NYC park rangers chase the infamous bear offstage; and in a show-stealing moment, local celebs Grover, Elmo, and Cookie Monster stop by to sing about their favorite playwright.

deBessonet casts only a few professional actors and opening the stage to amateur actors, whose delivery may be unpolished but whose pride at performing at the Delacorte is visible and infectious. So co-creator Almond may get the greater share of choral narration as the late Antigonus (recounting the tale that left him mauled by a bear), but he graciously cedes the Act 3 prologue by Time Personified to an 8-year-old girl wearing a clock-face. The kid, Jennifer Levine, nails her speech. The most talented performance, Christopher Fitzgerald as Autolycus, shares the stage with the least talented one, Senator Schumer (as himself), in a bit of Shakespearean comic repartee.

The upshot of this socially-radical, polyphonic adaption is a phenomenal Winter’s Tale that probably dissatisfies purists and gatekeepers of the arts. The NYT sniffed that it “falls firmly into what might be called the ‘Shakespeare for Beginners’ tradition” then qualified that trad as “perfectly respectable”. But its accessibility isn’t limited to the untutored—this is Shakespeare that everyone except a killjoy would love. At its core, deBessonet’s method of staging Shakespeare transforms the play from an aesthetic artifact into a civic celebration, like stone into flesh. To enjoy this show, to be in this show, you only need to be a citizen.

Jennifer Levine as Time in The Winter's Tale
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Oskar Eustis and his Public Theater know they’ve got a civic treasure, and they invited Mayor de Blasio to introduce the performance on Saturday Sep 6. de Blasio gave a roll call for the local arts organizations appearing in the show, then thanked the backers (Domestic Workers United received much applause; Bank of America got a boo or two). He quoted Lincoln rather than Shakespeare (“building a more perfect union”) and generally gave good oratory but mediocre rhetoric (“we’re breaking down barriers”). Eustis, introducing the Mayor, was more on-point: at his theater, “you don’t just get to watch it, you get to do it.” This is theater whose convictions are backed up by the work on a fundamental level. By hiring deBessonet to stage her civic parades, he backs up his words with her alternative way of producing theater, and an inclusive vision.

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