Review: “Project 1599”, a four-and-a-half-hour Shakespeare Marathon

Asya Danilova

OnStage Associate New York Critic

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” – these famous lines from “As You Like It” open “Project 1599”, an epic four-in-one retrospective of the plays that William Shakespeare wrote in the year of 1599. Inspired by James Shapiro’s book, “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare” (2005), the director Jim Niesen combined “Henry V”, “Julius Caesar”, “As You Like It” and “Hamlet” into one, almost five-hour long, theatrical evening. 

Six actors: Joey Collins, Michael-David Gordon, Terry Greiss, Sam Metzger, Alex Spieth and Katie Wieland play multiple parts. Dressed in monochrome modern day clothes by the costume designer Hilarie Blumenthal, the actors smoothly transition from one character to another, changing gender and age as easily as Shakespeare’s characters do in some of his plays. 

Racks with costumes and tables with props stand along the wall. And as there is virtually no separation between the stage and the backstage, the border between the audience and the actors gradually starts to blur. Each of the four plays occupies a different corner of the Irondale Center, a former Sunday school auditorium in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The use of varied seating arrangements, along with moving from one location to another, provided a unique experience in the effects of manipulating physical space. This changed how the play is perceived and altered the interaction between the audience and actors. 
When you enter the space arranged for the first play of the evening, “Henry V”, you find yourself in a mostly traditional set: chairs are placed on the platforms and around small tables, making a U-shape auditorium around the stage aria marked by the red outline. Alex Spieth, as Henry V, was full of boyish eagerness both in the war camp and princess Katherine’s chambers.

As we move from the story of the young idealist, Henry V, to the story about “real politics”, “Julius Caesar”, we climb up to the gallery to take seats on various sofas, chairs and stools scattered around. Some of the scenes will take place next to you or even around you, making you feel a part of the conspiracy. Brutus (Michael-David Gordon) addressing the members of the audience as people belonging to the world of the play only amplifies the effect of participation. 

Some of the scenes will take place far from you or even behind you, so you will be stretching and leaning from side to side to see the action on the other side of the gallery. In contrast to the situation where Brutus and others plot against Caesar right next to you, you suddenly feel excluded and suspicious. These two distinctly different points of view almost give you the opportunity to experience the play as two different people. 

The audience is ushered downstairs again for the longer intermission, during which a delicious vegetarian dinner is served. Everybody is welcome to take one of the seats on the podiums or to recline on a giant carpet spread around to mark the stage aria. The white sails hung above the war theater in the first “act” are down now and are reminiscent of picnic tents in a garden. The romantic comedy, “As you Like It”, suddenly starts, and goes by fast, as much needed relief from the serious drama. 

For the final act of the evening, “Hamlet”, chairs are set up along three sides of the of the stage aria. The vastness of the theater is shrunk to the small intimate space where every single audience member can see each other, and is vulnerably open to the piercing gaze of Joey Collins, playing Hamlet descending into madness. He is the only character that sees and directly addresses the audience, besides the Gravedigger, making us nothing other than ghosts. 

“Project 1599”, despite the edits of the plays, provides an excellent presentation of the most fruitful year in the life of Shakespeare. The wonderful cast demonstrates refreshing clarity in both articulation and performance, which makes the piece a potent educational tool. The spatial work by Jim Niesen, and the scenic designers Ken Rothchild and Meredith Cody, is remarkable in its simple elegance and ability to establish a connection with the audience. Watching the actors transform into different characters from play to play is also a rare and valuable opportunity.        

“Project 1599” is playing at the Irondale Center at 85 South Oxford street, Brooklyn through February 3rd. Performances are on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 5pm. Running time: 4 hours 30 minutes. Tickets are available online. General admission tickets are $40 ($50 with dinner), $30 for students and seniors ($40 with dinner).