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Illyria

Theatre Review by Jose Solís - October 30, 2017


John Magaro and Fran Kranz
Photo by Joan Marcus

Imagine if The Public Theater was a funhouse in which each venue was inhabited by the phantoms of performances past. Visitors might encounter Hair at the LuEsther, A Chorus Line at the Martinson, a cabaret starring Justin Vivian Bond at Joe's Pub, and of course Hamilton at the Newman. If such apparitions existed, they would all revolve around Richard Nelson's Illyria, which opened on October 30 at the Anspacher, but seems to have been summoned spirits from decades past. Nelson, who is a master of naturalism and making theater in the present, here presents something that lies between a diorama and a shared dream. Set in 1958, the play chronicles the events behind the scenes at a production of Twelfth Night at the outdoors Shakespeare Festival led by the legendary Joseph Papp; therefore, becoming an unofficial prequel to every single production of what we now know as Shakespeare in the Park.

In the play we first hear of Papp through other characters who talk about him with equal measures of fear, admiration and impatience. We learn he's a visionary theatre maker who knows what he wants to such degree that his will becomes unbendable. When we finally see him he isn't an ogre, but rather appears to be an everyman with his mind caught up in too many things at once. As played by John Magaro, Papp is a man of few but pithy words, his need for objectivity might easily be confused for arrogance. When he makes his own wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly) audition for a part she's not likely to get, his desire for transparency is confused with cruelty. It turns that Joe isn't only preoccupied with raising the funds for the new season, but also worried about whether he'll be able to maintain a free Shakespeare festival in a city enamoured with the idea of making a buck.

Through three masterful scenes, also directed by Nelson, we meet an assortment of characters who more often than not share Papp's vision of a world where the arts matter more than capitalism. Considering audiences are sitting in the place that would become Papp's temple for the arts, the outcome is never quite the mystery. And yet there is something delightful about seeing this group of people, some of whom would become icons in their own right (Rosie Benton's earthy take on Colleen Dewhurst alone should merit a play of its own) try to put together a show. There's a sense of scrappy camaraderie that helps the play avoid any facile foreshadowing and allows us to root for characters whose fates could be discovered by doing a simple Google search.

Nelson isn't the type of writer who would lionize a figure like Papp, rather through his dissection of his seemingly fearless spirit he's trying to discover what makes the essence of a man. As is usual with his plays, there are lovely scenes in which characters have long conversations about life and art while eating copious meals, which in this case help transform these potential ghosts into flesh and bone beings. But by opening this window into the past, Nelson is also inviting possession. Will we go out into the world satisfied with having seen an exceptional production, or will we be inspired and seek ways in which to maintain the democracy of the arts? Near the end of the play, an introspective Papp looks at a couple sitting in the park after a performance of his Twelfth Night, when he looks again they've vanished like the ghosts of theatre themselves, "the kids are gone. We've been forgotten…" he exclaims. Here's to remembering.


Illyria
Through December 10
The Public Theater - Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: publictheater.org


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