The Shakespeare Society’s Birthday Marathon on April 26th celebrated William’s 445th big day. Artistic/Executive Director Michael Sexton orchestrated five hours of New York artists to present scenes and monologues for this extravaganza—this 3rd annual free event focusing on Shakespeare in New York and how his work lives in the city. K. Ann McDonald, Chair of the Shakespeare Society’s Board of Directors, introduced the Society and its mission to increase “the enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of William Shakespeare's works through performance, commentary, and educational activities.” Michael Cumpsty, who will play Malvolio in Shakespeare in the Park’s summer production of Twelfth Night, hosted the first hour, kicking things off with the prologue to Henry V. Cumpsty’s crisp elocution without force served to bring the grand images to life—to cram within the Symphony Space the meta-theatrical beginning to one of the best-known histories. Halfway through his hosting duties, Roberta Maxwell jumped up on stage and began to curse him, channeling her inner Queen Margaret (Richard III) to the audience’s surprise and delight.
The collaboration between Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and New Jersey’s McCarter Theater celebrated New York City actors who have ventured outside of the Big Apple. In their Twelfth Night contribution, Stephen DeRosa brings great fun and casual humor to Feste. DeRosa and Rebecca Brooksher as Viola engage the audience as Viola panics for fear of revealing her cross-dressing secret, and Veanne Cox charms as a very emotional Olivia. Even though Brooksher is in feminine street clothes, their commitment to the text brings intention and meaning to this staged reading. And when Cox and Brooksher try to outbow each other (each attempting to undercut the other’s bow), the Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner scene in the “King and I” instantly came to mind—the willful forces of romance squaring off. The lesbian kiss witnessed by Feste caused hoots from the audience, but it didn’t quite hold the sustained emotion of the fond farewell or the bow-off.
Many other groups and individuals contributed to the marathon, representing the plethora of talent the city holds. Hamish Linklater created a passionate, ponderous, and eloquent Benedick with a touch of egotistical funny, contrasting with his great concern for Beatrice (Laila Robins). The concert staging of Richard III (Act 1, scene 3) lost none of its alluring sleaziness. Martha Plimpton’s Lady Anne was strong and defiant, but she was no match for Denis O’Hare’s slippery and vile Richard, whose very enunciation was insidiously hypnotizing. Elisabeth Waterson and Michael Cerveris delivered Act 2, scene 4 of Measure for Measure. Waterson exuded the sweet innocence of her character while Cerveris brought a new duality to Angelo, fraught between his conflicting desires. The Classic Stage Company’s contribution from The Tempest didn’t fare as well in the concert format; the scene involved physical humor and specific stage directions, which worked much better in the CSC’s 2008 production than as a read scene with scripts, music stands, and pantomime.
CSC’s Youth Company shined in their Romeo and Juliet selection, a split stage acting as a cinematic split screen between Act 3, scenes 2 and 3. Alison Weisgall as Juliet was bold and energetic, laughing with glee at the thought of meeting her new husband for their first night. Her nurse (Lauren Murphy) burst in, her anxious sorrow pulsing in the air around her. As their scene progressed, Luc Radu as the Friar (dressed intentionally or by perfect coincidence as a mentoring professor) delivered the sentence to a completely distraught Romeo (Josh Sauerman). The scenes volley back and forth between lines, with the characters from the respective scenes speaking in unison—especially powerful when Romeo and Juliet both cried, “Banishe’d” together. There were lines lost due to the overlapping, but the merge was so judicious and precise that it heightened the emotional stakes by highlighting the scenes’ similarities.
The marathon also exhibited the range of artistic pursuits that use Shakespeare’s work, from film to the involvement of youth in New York City’s Shakespeare community. Professor Patricia Lennox of New York University’s Gallatin School introduced film clips that adapt Shakespeare to New York City. The greatest find was Charles Kent and Stuart Blackton’s silent version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909), one of the first films to shoot on location, using Prospect Park for Athens and other bucolic places in the then-forested areas of Brooklyn. Incorporated into the show were performances from students in New York City who study Shakespeare independently or through the city’s outreach programs. Shevonne Henry from Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn recited Sonnet 57 and portrayed a love struck Cleopatra, lamenting Antony’s dead body. Matthew Amira, winner of the English Speaking Union’s New York Shakespeare Competition and third place winner of the National competition, performed his Poor Tom monologue from King Lear. Students from Chelsea High School, with the aid of Epic Theater Ensemble’s Education Program, gave great commitment to their scenes from The Winter’s Tale.
The last hour, comprised of excerpts from Theater for a New Audience's acclaimed 2008-2009 season, was beautiful and wondrous. I did not have the opportunity to see Christian Camargo star in Hamlet, but his performance of "O, what a rogue and peasant slave" and "How all occasions do inform against me" was a glimpse into a man caught in time. Camargo filled the text with a tortured individual who sees what must be done, as well as his own fallibility in performing the act. Even in a concert staging, Camargo produced a Hamlet haunted with destiny unfulfilled, his face and body sunken with distress. John Douglas Thompson as Othello also had a heavy mantle to bear in the temptation scene, as his joy and lighthearted innocence slowly melted from his visage, leaving only the seeds of Iago's (Ned Eisenberg) malicious plans. Kate Forbes as Emelia and Juliet Rylance as Desdemona reconstruct the willow scene with acute emotion, and Rylance's “Willow Song,” with its somber, wind-chime twinkling arrangement, charmed the audience. To conclude the marathon, Thompson lent his sensual, gravelly voice to Prospero's last scene and epilogue from The Tempest.
After I was set free from my five-hour indulgence, I walked onto the poetic streets of New York City, Rylance’s enchanting voice resounding in my head and Shakespeare’s verse pulsing through my veins. Happy Birthday, indeed!