Sunday, November 12, 2017

Illyria - Offering Much, But Not Telling Enough

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The birth pangs of the New York Shakespeare Festival, particularly its conflicts with the New York City Parks Department and city planner Robert Moses are the stuff of theatre legend. Playwright Richard Nelson using those events as the source material for his rather meandering play Illyria, at the Public Theater.

Taking place between April and August of 1958, the story centers around Joe Papp (John Magaro), founder of the Festival, and a man who expects and demands loyalty from those around him. He's also not above using his position to get what he wants. Case in point, his insistence on casting his actress wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly) in the company's upcoming production of Twelfth Night. This despite objections from the group's director Stuart Vaughn (John Sanders), who thinks she's clearly wrong for the role. Stuart is also still chafing over his having to cast Peggy in a previous production, despite his protests.

Adding to the tension between the two men is Stuart 's acceptance of a directing offer at the Phoenix Theatre, something Joe is not happy about. Though Stuart insists he can do both jobs without sacrificing the quality of his work at either - the productions being on different schedules - Joe wants him to pick one career path or the other. Matters coming to a head during a luncheon gathering which quickly turns into a verbal battle over art and commerce. Festival press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Krantz) delivering the most powerful line of the play at that encounter, telling Joe that, while he would do anything for free Shakespeare, he refuses to be associated with cheap Shakespeare. This in regard to a discussion on charging audiences a nominal fee for Festival productions rather than keeping them free for all, as was originally envisioned.

While certainly a subject worth discussing, things start to become repetitive rather quickly. Matters not being helped by the fact that, other than Joe, none of the characters feel in any way three-dimensional, and thus, not all that interesting. Rather ironic, since just about all of those depicted are real people, several of whom became major forces in theatre. This detached feeling becomes even more exacerbated in an extended final scene which goes on and on, and on. Nelson, also doing double duty here as the show's director, seeming to have had no idea of when to end his story.

Nelson does try to keep things the audience engaged by dropping in some interesting tidbits from time to time. These include the group having to deal with a temperamental George C. Scott during one of their productions; various union issues the company faced in order to get their shows put on; and mention of what would eventually become Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts being built on New York's West Side. An institution, Joe and his friends believe, the city authorities are much more in favor of than the Festival.

It should be pointed out that Illyria is not presenting things as they actually happened. As Nelson explains in the program notes, he's taken some liberties with the timeline of events, and has given one particular incident a new outcome for dramatic effect. Yet that doesn't explain the feeling one has of being dropped into the narrative midway through and thus continually forced to play catch-up in order to understand what's going on. Joe's being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee being an example of this.

Nelson must also share the blame, along with sound designer Scott Lehrer, for the continued inability of the audience to hear much of what was being said during the production. The actors apparently being neither miked nor projecting their voices. To be fair, The Public Theater staff did tell the audience before the show began that Illyria was going to be an intimate affair, and that listening devices were available for anybody who wanted one. However there’s a difference between such devices being available and their use being mandatory; something which definitely needed to be the case here.

Despite the work's various shortcomings, the cast give it their all. Particularly Magaro in the Joseph Papp role as he presents a portrait of someone who, while not that likeable, leaves no doubt as to where he stands on every issue. Kranz is nicely stalwart as Merle; while Sanders’ character offers a strong counterpoint to Joe throughout. Stuart also bringing up issues no one wants to talk about. Like asking what's wrong with working on projects that make you money and advance your career?

The set by Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West is serviceable, while the lighting design by Jennifer Tipton works well.

The story of Joseph Papp, Robert Moses (who strangely isn't mentioned until more than an hour into the play) and the beginnings of the New York Shakespeare Festival is a fascinating tale and one that certainly deserves to be told. Illyria, however, is not the vehicle with which to tell it.

Featuring: John Magaro (Joseph Papp), Kristen Connolly (Peggy Papp), Fran Kranz (Merle Debuskey), John Sanders (Stuart Vaughan), Emma Duncan (Gladys Vaughn), David Amram (Blake Delong), Max Woertendyke (John Robertson), Rosie Benton (Colleen Dewhurst), Will Brill (Bernie Gersten), Naian González Norvind (Mary Bennett)


Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Scenic Designers: Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume Designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Stage Manager: Jared Oberholtzer

Presented by The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

Closes: December 10, 2017

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