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A Midsummer Night's Dream (#110 of 3)

Interview: Lear deBessonet on Directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Park

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Interview: Lear deBessonet on Directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Park

Matthew Murphy

Interview: Lear deBessonet on Directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Park

Lear deBessonet’s passion for her work is infectious. Just listen to the 37-year-old director speak and you can sense how she’s been able to harness the disparate energies of 200-strong mixed casts of professional and non-professional performers for her vibrant community theater projects. The Louisiana native has also garnered acclaim for her Obie Award-winning production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, starring a transcendent Taylor Mac in the gender-shifting lead role, and this past spring, her exuberant revival of Suzan-Lori Park’s thought-provoking Venus at the Signature Theatre.

I recently sat down with deBessonet at the Public Theater to chat about her journey as a director and her latest project, the Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring, among others, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Poe, De’Adre Aziza, Annaleigh Ashford, and Danny Burstein.

The Valley of Astonishment Interview with Kathryn Hunter

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The Valley of Astonishment Interview with Kathryn Hunter
The Valley of Astonishment Interview with Kathryn Hunter

The preternaturally talented Kathryn Hunter practically defies credulity on stage. Last year, in Kafka’s Monkey, the diminutive performer, using her ultra-flexible limbs, throaty voice, and piercing intelligence, transformed herself into a sentient male chimpanzee who had been taught to speak and behave like a human. A few months later, she equally dazzled as an ageless, genderless, shape-shifting Puck in Julie Taymor’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Greek-American actress, who grew up in England and has worked mostly overseas, is currently back in New York, at Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in the aptly titled The Valley of Astonishment, a theater piece about the miracles of the mind co-written and directed by the renowned Peter Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. I caught up with Hunter recently to learn more about the new work and about her own remarkable journey as an actress.

How would you describe The Valley of Astonishment?

I would say it’s an exploration of what it is to be human. We meet a woman who has a prodigious memory, a young man who has synesthesia, which is a condition where the senses are mixed—a sound becomes a color, words have tastes and forms and shapes—and we meet another man who’s lost his sense of his body and is paralyzed, but who manages to walk again by controlling his limbs with his eyes. In the end it follows, most specifically, the story of the woman, Sammy, who becomes a performing mnemonist; she memorizes so many words and tables of numbers for these performances and then suffers from the inability to forget, and so she starts hallucinating. The piece has an unusual form, which I think people will find intriguing. As with the best storytelling, it changes narrative, changes tone; there’s humor and then it shifts to a more poetic level. Peter [Brook] is continuing his [previous] exploration of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which was based on the Oliver Sacks books. These neurological disorders, in fact, turn out to be quite wondrous. So at the end of the day, I think I would characterize the play as a celebration of the human being, a celebration of difference.

Under Your Skin: An Interview with Burning Playwright Thomas Bradshaw

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Under Your Skin: An Interview with Burning Playwright Thomas Bradshaw
Under Your Skin: An Interview with Burning Playwright Thomas Bradshaw

Don’t be misled by the warm smile and the fedora in the photograph; Thomas Bradshaw writes plays that can get under your skin in very uncomfortable ways. To be sure, his work can be suave and entertaining, but as anyone who has seen his previous work—Purity, Strom Thurmond Is a Racist, Southern Promises, Dawn, or The Bereaved—would attest, this is a playwright who charts controversial pathways; he has as many detractors as he has admirers. His latest work, Burning, is receiving his most high-profile production so far, by the New Group under the direction of Scott Elliott, and is currently playing at Theater Row in New York. The 14-character play comprises of intertwined stories that take place in 1985 and the present, involving, among others, two partnered men who set up an unconventional domestic/sexual relationship with a 14-year-old aspiring actor in the 1980s; a painter whose work is being exhibited in a gallery in contemporary Berlin; and a brother and sister dedicated to carrying on the traditions of their deceased parents’ Neo-Nazi philosophy. The characters in the play—black, white, gay, straight, and questioning—interact with sometimes explosive results. Bradshaw has often been called a provocateur and, given the uncompromising nature of his work, that’s a label audiences attending Burning might also readily apply. But the 31-year-old playwright doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment.