Phila. Theater Offers Shakespeare to the Enlightenment

by Debra Miller

PHOTOS BELOW – Performance dates for shows reviewed here run until Nov. 21. Each show, different dates. See show-specific dates below.

Those of us who love Shakespeare and period drama are relishing the new season in Philadelphia, with its abundance of thought-provoking productions in 2010-11. The range from purist approaches to original reinterpretations, from tragedies and histories to comedies, offers something for all tastes and to stir all emotions.

Rightfully, the talk of the theater community has been John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, presented as the first full production of the two-year-old Philadelphia Artists’ Collective. Under the inspired direction of co-founder Dan Hodge (who thanked the audience for leaving their virtual media for an evening of real human interaction), the biographical Jacobean tragedy was performed in the Gothic-style community space of the Broad Street Ministry, with its floor and balcony serving as stage and set. The historical characters were exquisitely costumed in attire not specific to their period, but, tellingly, to their classes and positions, while an original live score for cello and percussion evoked the musical interludes of the play’s 1614 London premier.

Artfully framing his actors in the arches of the Ministry’s architectural space, placing them on diagonals at varying levels of depth, and lighting them with strong chiaroscuro contrasts, Hodge’s scenes captured the sensibility and beauty of a Baroque painting. The stellar lead cast (featuring bravura performances by Charlotte Northeast as the eponymous proto-Feminist duchess; Damon Bonetti and Brian McCann as her ambitious murderous brothers; and Jared Michael Delaney as the brutish mercenary malcontent Bosola) all masterfully reached the heights and depths of emotion with power and nuance. The supporting cast, including rising stars Doug Greene and Melissa Lynch, was equally compelling. This incomparable production, employing only a chair and rope for props, and daring to present one scene in total darkness, proved that theater at its very best does not require a huge budget or elaborate accoutrements, but an astute focus on superlative writing, acting, and direction. Rarely does a work of art achieve such perfection.

Quintessence Theatre Group, now in its inaugural season at Germantown’s Sedgwick Theater, presented an equally bare-staged, in-the-round production of Shakespeare’s Henry V, designed to focus on the Bard’s unparalleled language. To help establish historical context, scenes from Henry IV, Part II and Henry VI, Part I were inserted at the beginning and end of the complex play, while the all-male cast adhered to the Shakespearean practice of actors performing even the female roles.

Though Shakespeare traditionally has been the most popular playwright in the English language, it does not imply a redundancy among Philadelphia’s productions. Extended beyond its run in the Fringe was the rarely staged Titus Andronicus, directed by Liam Castellan at Plays & Players, and also featuring cross-gender casting (with women playing some male roles, in a reversal of Elizabethan men-only casts). Set in ancient Rome, Shakespeare’s early work is a bloodbath, with double-digit murders, rape, dismemberments, and cannibalism. But the most chilling moments in Castellan’s production were the decollated heads presented in zip-lock bags, the Emperor addressing the crowds as “Gentle Romans,” and an unsuspecting audience member pulled onstage to be sentenced to hanging—effectively giving an immediate sense of the shockingly indiscriminate violence that is not limited to Antiquity. Caught the news lately?

The Wilma Theater made its first foray into Shakespeare with Macbeth (extended through November 13). Reset in the 20th century, director Blanka Zizka synthesized her own experiences in Communist Czechoslovakia with the duplicitous intrigues of the Scottish play, thereby reaffirming the universality and timeliness of its themes. Standouts in the supporting cast were the always outstanding Krista Apple, in her dual roles as a “weird sister” and Lady Macduff, and Ed Swidey as Angus. A clever staging of the witches’ cauldron scene, usually set in a cave, substituted a soup tureen on the castle’s dining table, thereby allowing for a more fluid transition in the action.

Even A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, set in Manhattan in the 1980s, and presented by the Delaware Theatre Company through November 7, referenced Shakespeare. Quotes from Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, and others underlined the characters’ emotions in a touching comedy about an English teacher whose husband unexpectedly brings home a stray dog–played with perfect comedic timing by Maggie Lakis. Rounding out the skilled ensemble were Kurt Zischke as the canine-loving husband, Hollis McCarthy as the stressed-out scholarly wife, and Dave Jadico, hilarious in a trio of male, female, and sexually ambiguous roles, again paying homage to Elizabethan casting convention. As the happy conclusion reminded us, All’s Well that Ends Well!

People’s Light & Theatre Company went beyond Shakespeare to the Enlightenment, with Karen Zacarías’s new historical fiction Legacy of Light (closing November 7), about Voltaire, Émilie du Châtelet, and her imagined 21st-century descendants. The intelligent, Stoppardesque script moved smoothly between 18th-century France and present-day America, while offering lessons in both science and life. An inventively celestial glass-installation backdrop and period-style costumes visually supported the fine performances by Stephen Novelli, Susan McKey, Emilie Krause, and the entire cast.

Running from November 9-21 at Villanova Theatre is George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem. First produced at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1707, the comedy was adapted by Thornton Wilder in 1939, and finished by Ken Ludwig in 2006. Offering hilarious and astute observations about society and gender, Villanova’s production, complete with authentic costumes and musical flourishes (including a live harpsichordist, violinist, and flutist), promises to blend the 18th-century period piece with a contemporary comic romp.

Still to come this spring, the two most consistent producers of Shakespeare in Philadelphia will return with their annual offerings; Lantern Theater Company presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre will perform Hamlet and As You Like It in repertory. In a bold move of casting, Hamlet director Carmen Khan will feature Mary Tuomanen, known for her acrobatic/physical style of acting, as the Danish prince. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lantern director Charles McMahon plans to avoid specific references to ancient Athens, and to create, instead, a world of contrasts between rational control and the magical abandonment of reality. Both should prove to be highly original visions.

It’s interesting to note that in these economically and politically troubled times, theater companies are now, more than ever, presenting the time-honored classics, historical periods and figures, and the moralizing values they embody. Perhaps the common thread is: Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it?

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2 Responses to “Phila. Theater Offers Shakespeare to the Enlightenment”

  1. ray costello Says:

    Shakespeare is timeless. Thank to the author for reminding us that “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it” as we prepare to vote.

  2. Deb Miller Says:

    Apparently too many voters do not study history.

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