- OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic
Have you ever wanted to peek behind the curtain of New York’s beloved Shakespeare in the Park, by the Public Theater in Central Park? Illyria, written and directed by Richard Nelson, currently running at The Public gives us an opportunity to do just that. Set in 1958, the young theater company led by Joe Papp (John Magaro) battles both inner and out dragons while trying to keep the festival running.
The city parks department insists that the festival should start charging money from the audience, calling the current policies “a communist thing”. But as Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz), the press rep, explains to the rest of the group, the officials’ strategy is to make the festival slowly fade away. Ticket fees mean different contracts with unions, which will make Papp lose money and audience in the long run.
From the auditions to the curtain of the final show of the season, the theater strives to survive. Although a tightknit group of friends, the company experiences inner turmoil and disagreement, fired up by Papp’s straightforward personality and manipulative inclinations. But you have to lean closer and hold your breath in order to hear everything said in the room. Nelson writes and directs in a very “close-to-real-life” manner. Multiple people might say their lines simultaneously, voices are soft, and some actors might spend the entire scene with their backs to the audience.
Consider the cozy architecture of the U-shaped Anspacher Theater at The Public and the voyeuristic approach may limit your approach to hear and see, but it works in a way. It draws you in, offering hot gossip of the theater world of New York in the 50s. That is if you hear it. Just be aware that the person scratching his face behind you or a phone vibrating three rows down will most likely drown out a line or two. Yes, the talking is that subtle.
The scenic design by Susan Hilferty consists of a number of mismatched desks, wooden chairs, benches and rugs, which the cast reassembles between scenes. Two out of three scenes involve eating, giving actors a chance to move around, while setting up tables, pouring drinks, etc. These acts of everyday life are beautifully executed, with small gestures and details that build the very fabric of human interactions. Illyria is a refined piece of theatre and might disappoint those who came for rapidly escalating passions and a cathartic payoff.
It is not entirely clear why Nelson downplays the conflict, perhaps because in the 50s Papp and his friends and colleagues didn’t entirely understand the significance of their project. His wife, Peggy (Kristen Connolly), starts to realize it towards the end of the play. “The festival is not about the money”, - she says. “It’s not about owing anything to the audience or them buying something. It’s like a dialogue, person to person, human being to human being”.
Illyria is playing at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St, through November 26, 2017. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30, Saturday and Sunday 1:30. Tickets start at $75. A limited number of free tickets is distributed in the lobby of The Public beginning 90 minutes prior to each scheduled performance. An additional number of free tickets is offered through TodayTix. For more information visit publictheater.org.
Illyria is written and directed by Richard Nelson. Scenic Design by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West. Costume Design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. Sound Design by Scott Lehrer.
The cast is Rosie Benton, Will Brill, Kristen Connolly, Blake DeLong, Emma Duncan, Naian González Norvind, Fran Kranz, John Magaro, John Sanders, and Max Woertendyke.
Photo: Joan Marcus