In 1971 and ’72, I worked in a theater company that had spun off from a graduate directing workshop at Yale taught by Nikos Psacharopoulos, a legendary teacher who founded the Williamstown Theatre Festival. We called ourselves N.A.T.E. – the New America Theater Ensemble – until we were informed via a cease and desist order that there already was a New America Theater Ensemble, at which point we changed the name to New Agape Theater Ensemble so we wouldn’t have to buy new letterhead stationery.
Our leader was a charismatic Russian tyrant who ruled with his beautiful, Bennington-educated wife. Sergei directed almost all the plays in our repertory, which tended to be the latest grim social-realist works from off-Broadway. The rest of us did everything a theater company did with no money demands: act, hang lights, build sets, sell tickets, teach an after-school program we ran for teenagers and, of course, sleep with each other in serial pairings and unpairings as dramatic as anything we put onstage.
It was a year of uninhibited discovery, vast learning and intense emotional immersion, the memory of which rushed through me during Richard Nelson’s play, Illyria, which is running at the Public Theater. Illyria is not only at the Public, it’s of the Public, being a brief, whispered account of the halting birth of the New York Shakespeare Festival, which more than any other, would have a profound and lasting impact on American theater.
Established by Joseph Papp, a son of impoverished Russian immigrants, it was based on the idea that Shakespeare belongs to everyone, and that Americans should invent our own vocabulary for performing the Bard. Beginning in its second decade, when the Festival took over the Astor Library in the East Village and converted it into the five-stage Public Theater, it evolved into a wellspring of American playwriting and performance that would include Hair, A Chorus Line, Sticks And Bones, That Championship Season, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf and others too countless to mention. And that’s not including the Shakespeare productions that ranged from traditional to musical to wholesale re-inventions, from a producer determined to put the entire canon on his stages.
Nelson – the hoarse whisperer of the stage whose quietly epic, of-the-moment play cycles about the Apple and Gabriel families of Rhinebeck, NY have in recent years ennobled the house that Papp founded – concentrates, and consecrates, the man. A master of dramatic landscapes large (Two Shakespearian Actors, Some Americans Abroad) and intimate, Nelson sketches absorbing portraits of Papp and the tight circle who ventured with him, in the mid-1950s, to create a theater ruled by art and not commerce. Papp earned his living as a stage manager for CBS; public education seeded his adoration of Shakespeare; poverty and a consequent devotion to social justice led him to Communist affiliations in the heart of the McCarthy era. All those influences are deeply felt .
An imagined Illyria is the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the play that Papp (a thoughtful John Magaro) and his troupe are casting at the beginning of the play, which presents the story as fact, with real names: Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), a gifted interpreter who was Papp’s first artistic director; and comrades Bernard Gersten (Will Brill), who would become Papp’s executive producer, and Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz), the Public’s loquacious press agent. Also on the creative side, composer David Amram (Blake DeLong) and actresses Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton) and Peggy Papp (Kristen Connolly), Papp’s wife. Unseen but much discussed is George C. Scott, already cutting a larger-than-life figure around town and who has embarked on an affair with Dewhurst, who also is coming into her own.
Illyria continues Nelson’s preoccupation with conversational presentation in which the actors speak sotto voce, forcing us to listen hard. With the Apple and Gabriel plays, the technique imbued the proceedings with an intimacy that made us eavesdroppers on conversations that were of the moment and in real time. It’s far less effective here, where the time is a distant one, most of the players are unfamiliar to most of the audience, and the inside baseball is so inside that viewers may be left wondering what the fuss is about.
Moreover, the male players in this history, starting with Papp himself, were a volatile lot, something you’d never know from the hushed tones prevailing here. Ending Illyria at the tentative but determined start of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s very public adventure will be endearing to those familiar with the history. The rest, however, may be justified in feeling left out in the cold. Illyria has second act problems. Notably: There isn’t one.
Across the Village at the Minetta Lane Theatre, a Grateful Dead party is bringing this sadly underused theater to life. The Deadheads were out in full blossom the night I attended Red Roses, Green Gold, as Crocs were doffed, hands waved in unison and creakish bodies swayed in gerontological ecstasy. A very good Dead cover band takes a tour of the band’s hits, especially from the early albums American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead.
Sorry to say, the good music comes wrapped in decidedly un-good nonsense, a story by Michael Norman Mann that takes its cue from the band’s “Cumberland Blues.” It’s some silliness about the owners of competing saloons in a no-account mining town and their offspring, a scenario that takes “Friend of the Devil” rather too much to heart.
On the plus side, Robert Andrew Kovach has used the space well, with an open, colorful setting; Ásta Bennie Hofstetter has provided imaginative costumes along the hippie-slash-cowboy spectrum, and Jeff Chimenti’s arrangements do justice to the catalog of songs by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter plus Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir & Bill Kreutzmann. Red Roses, Green Gold isn’t so much a long strange trip as it is a brief tumble into cozy, pain-free nostalgia. It’d be a surefire hit in Branson, MO.