Illyria: “What Country, Friends, is This?”
By AntonioNY for frontmezzjunkies
In the Public Theater’s production of the new play, Illyria, written and directed by Richard Nelson, we are transported back to New York City in 1958 and find ourselves in the greenroom of Heckscher Auditorium where an actress is there to audition for a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (The title comes from the setting for Twelfth Night.). From the very first moment, Richard Nelson is in his element; we are going to witness legendary people and hear about very extraordinary events but this is going to be a play about real life so we will experience everything in the most quiet and ordinary moments. Mr. Nelson makes us lean in to this play and tune into the characters who have been directed in complete naturalism. The ushers outside the theater joyfully encouraged all to get an assisted listening device if they had any problems hearing. I must admit, I was a little disappointed when you tease me with characters like Joe Papp, (acted with enormous passion and focus by John Magaro), Colleen Dewhurst (played with great generosity by Rosie Benton) and Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders as the perfect sparring partner to Joe Papp) and I only get the small intimate moments during this tumultuous time of the Public Theater, New York City and America. But by the end, I left the theater deeply satisfied in the time spent in Mr. Nelson’s world. As we are moved through a summer in Joe Papp’s life, I began feeling the weight of these small moments and the courage it took to create the theater in which I was now an audience member almost 60 years later. The production was simply and beautifully designed by Jason Ardizzone-West and Susan Hilferty; Hilferty also did the wonderful costume design. Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton helped illuminate the shifts that helped create the greenroom, apartment and Central Park. Mr. Nelson’s play is not perfect but it does capture life’s beauty and pain if you are willing to move to the edge of your seat and adjust your ears to the play’s frequency.
The play begins the moment after a drunk George C. Scott has traumatized a child at a student matinee. The stage manager, John Robertson, (Max Woertendyke) who has survived this chaotic matinee has also arranged for his girlfriend, Mary Bennett, a young actress (played beautifully by Naian González Norvind) to audition for the Shakespeare Festival. We slowly meet the other players who all surround Joe Papp; the resident director, Stuart Vaughan, whose wife, Gladys (a clever and competent Emma Duncan), is Joe’s assistant. The press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz) and the composer David Amram (Blake DeLong) round out the festival group. (I have seen the actual David Amran performing many time over the last ten years and although Mr. DeLong was charming, I had a hard time believing the colorful, crazy, delightful Amran was ever this naturalistic.) I was seduced into this quiet world where it seems there is little to no drama and yet, the stories that are being told make me see that we are not in Kansas anymore. With the arrival of Joe Papp and Joe’s actress wife, Peggy (a charming and complex Kristen Connolly), who has just had a baby, the conflict truly begins. Vaughan has seen Bennet and wants to cast her as Olivia in Twelfth Night, but Papp would like to give the role to his wife. Vaughan who has just accepted another job with the Phoenix Theater is frustrated with Papp’s behavior, his commitment to his wife, and to the festival create a wonderful dynamic between the two men and everyone else involved with the festival. Of course, in true Nelson and his naturalistic fashion, Peggy and Joe order lunch for all. It is quite a feat to act and eat lunch but I must admit that the act of eating allows us to see the character’s wonderful internalized behavior. I have decided it is nearly impossible to hide and eat at the same time; something is always revealed.
We then travel forward a few months and Dewhurst is throwing a potluck birthday dinner in her apartment on the Upper West Side. This isDewhurst before the great fame that she will achieve and just at the beginning of her relationship with George C. Scott. The room is alive with the setting–up of tables, food, drinks, etc. Bernie Gersten, (Will Brill) a stage manager and friend of Papp, has joined the group to celebrate Papp’s birthday. We find out Papp and Gersten have been summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee for suspected Communist affiliations. We also discover that Papp has lost his day job at CBS and that Robert Moses and the New York City Parks Department have their eyes on the Shakespeare Festival. History is happening right there before us and we are witness to how these events are shaping the character’s reality but also America. Yet with all of these monumental shifts, it is revealed around a simple dinner table with food and drinks being passed around. ( I also question if there wasn’t A LOT MORE smoking in 1958.) Papp, having limited options, attempts to get Vaughan to take over the festival but Vaughan is the pragmatist here. He questions why we can’t just let it go and move on while registering the anger he is facing from the rest of the room.
The last scene takes place at the end of the summer on the closing night of the festival. Papp has directed Twelfth Night with Peggy as Olivia and it has not been the critical success Papp had wanted. Nelson brings this fascinating play to a close as the audience disappears and the cast goes out to drink leaving Papp to contemplate the future in the rain. This beautiful moment reveals not only a person at the crossroads of his life, but a man realizing what he is going totry to accomplish in the decades to come. I think in this time where many in our government wish to dismantle support for the arts, it is an important reminder that with hope, hard work and good friends, dreams can come true and The Public Theater stands today as a tribute to Joe Papp.