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William Shakespeare (#110 of 34)

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.

Theater Review: Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

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Theater Review: Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Theatre for a New Audience

Theater Review: Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

As the crowd waited in the lobby of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center for the curtain to rise on Simon Godwin’s production of Measure for Measure, a voice on the loudspeaker said that the bordello was now open. This isn’t the way Shakespeare productions typically begin, even in Brooklyn. Theatre for a New Audience built a passage from the lobby to the theater, with simulated acts of sadomasochism in the occasional opening on either side, separated by a hallway lined with rows of sex toys on small shelves, more boutique retail than museum. Guests were greeted at the entrance by a bored woman with a thick Slavic accent. “Nice to see you again,” she muttered to my wife.

A Thrilling (Re)discovery Jeannette Winterson’s The Gap of Time

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A Thrilling (Re)discovery: Jeannette Winterson’s The Gap of Time
A Thrilling (Re)discovery: Jeannette Winterson’s The Gap of Time

The Hogarth Shakespeare series calls up two of literature’s most iconic names. The Hogarth Press, founded in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, not only published the Woolfs’ work, but it also boasts having published the U.K. edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. To this day, the publishing house, now an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, remains an influential space within modernist literary history. As for Shakespeare? Well, his plays, constantly read, taught, and performed, are so ingrained in our culture it almost makes any introduction to the famed British playwright moot.

The series matches bestselling authors with the Bard’s classic texts to produce updated visions for the classroom and stage. Next year, we’ll be able to read Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, while later down the line, we’ll learn if a Gillian Flynn retooling of Hamlet will obligatorily feature an empowered Ophelia. It’s an idea that feels both old and new. Because what were Shakespeare plays themselves but “updated” versions of myths, histories, and other popular stories?

Giving Shakespeare His Due Brian Selznick’s The Marvels

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Giving Shakespeare His Due: Brian Selznick’s The Marvels
Giving Shakespeare His Due: Brian Selznick’s The Marvels

In the middle of Brian Selznick’s newest picture book/novel hybrid, The Marvels, a young boy sneaks into a theater where he’s enraptured by a performance of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The play, one of the Bard’s late romances, is perhaps best remembered for its late-act feat of magic wherein a statue of queen Hermione, who had presumably died 16 years prior, comes to life only to be greeted by the repentant husband whose accusatory cries of adulterer had caused her death. “The play had left him strangely sad, even though he knew it was supposed to have a happy ending,” we’re told. It’s one of many moments in Selznick’s latest endeavor that feels indicative of the type of story we’re reading, as this is a stage-bound spectacle that depends on its own theatricality to craft a narrative about how families are made and unmade.

Just as George Méliès was at the heart of Selznick’s instant classic The Invention of Hugo Cabret, so does Shakespeare haunt these pages. It’s no surprise cross-dressing, mistaken identities, aimless young men, and a family tragedy are at the center of this centuries-spanning chronicle that begins in an all-too familiar Shakespearean scenario: a tempest at sea.

Film Comment Selects 2015: Cymbeline

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Film Comment Selects 2015: <em>Cymbeline</em>
Film Comment Selects 2015: <em>Cymbeline</em>

In Cymbeline, director Michael Almereyda, working with cinematographer Tim Orr, strikingly calls attention to the flimsiness of the story’s settings. Characters hatch out a plan at a Chinese restaurant and the audience is allowed to ineffably sense that this location was selected, perhaps the week before shooting, for the strip-mall bareness of its interior and for its overall chintziness, which contrasts with the heightened poetic dialogue that’s taken from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Other locations, which include warehouses, dilapidated mansions, bridges, and spartanly furnished cabins, exude a similarly purposefully contrived aura of isolated, cherry-picked formality: They’re theatrical sets as found objects, and Orr often casts them in silvery hues that convey a nihilistic impression of decay and apocalyptic impermanency.

Review: Macbeth at Park Avenue Armory

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Review: <em>Macbeth</em> at Park Avenue Armory
Review: <em>Macbeth</em> at Park Avenue Armory

The Macbeth now playing at the Park Avenue Armory, co-directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, achieves a remarkable theatrical feat: It makes the experience of entering and exiting the theater more exciting than watching the play itself. That’s not to say that this latest interpretation of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, in which Branagh plays the titular tyrant, isn’t full of swashbuckling excitement, frightening depictions of murder and madness, and performers at the limits of their vocal and physical capacities. But these are the hallmarks of Macbeth in the modern age, when the 1606 play is typically rendered like a Hollywood action movie, with an antihero knocking off all the bad (well, good) guys until his own violent demise. Ashford and Branagh’s unsurprising Macbeth might have passed without much notice, or complaint, were it not for a set design that reminds us how much more this play can be.

Red Velvet Interview with Adrian Lester

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Red Velvet Interview with Adrian Lester
Red Velvet Interview with Adrian Lester

In Red Velvet, a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti now at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, Adrian Lester plays Ira Aldridge, a famed African-American actor who made history playing Othello at the London Covent Garden in 1833. Aldridge, who’d left New York as a teenager, was in his late 20s when he stepped in for the ailing Edmund Kean, the reigning English Shakespearean thespian of the day. He went on to build an illustrious career in Europe, touring with the classics until his death in 1867.

Since his affecting performance in the early 1990s as the cross-dressing Rosalind in the all-male Cheek by Jowl production of As You Like It, Lester has moved easily between Sondheim musicals, Shakespeare, a long-running British television series (Hustle), and playing the idealistic campaign manager in Mike Nichols’s Primary Colors. The English actor, who’s married to playwright Chakrabarti, talked to us about bringing Aldridge’s story, their labor of love, to the stage.

How did Red Velvet come about?

I was asked to do a reading at the Garrick Club about Ira’s experiences in London and in the provinces. I had never heard of the guy before. So after I finished the reading I took those six sheets of paper about him back home and I asked my wife Lolita if she’d heard of him. She said no. She read the pages and said, “I think there’s a story here.” She started doing some research and she realized that Ira’s connection to European history was quite strong. A lot of the significant moments in his life coincided with a lot that was happening in Europe—the people he influenced and the people he met. Lolita found it fascinating that the manager of the company at Covent Garden, which was a major theater in London, said he wanted Ira to step in and play the part. You can believe that from a manager who’s from France, who’s perhaps the son or the grandson of people who pushed through the Revolution—people who wanted change and fought for it. At that time, we know that the actresses Fanny Kemble and Ellen Tree played Romeo and Juliet opposite each other, and we know that the bill to abolish slavery on all British soil was also going through. So it was quite a turbulent period.

Lolita began collecting this research all together thinking she’d write a film. She told Indhu Rubasingham, who was directing her in a play, about this story and Indhu said, “Write it as a play, it’s much quicker, I’d love to direct it.” From that point, Lolita was writing draft after draft and she was handing it to me and to Indhu, and we were feeding notes back until we got to the point that it was ready.