Shakespeare is evergreen in Philadelphia – solid entertainment for insecure times

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Those of us who love Shakespeare and period drama are relishing the new season in Philadelphia.  With its abundance of thought-provoking productions in 2010-11 — which range from purist approaches to original reinterpretations, from tragedies and histories to comedies — there’s something for all tastes and to stir all emotions.  Here’s a look at what’s currently in production or coming soon.

Macbeth

Ensemble in Wilma Theater’s Macbeth. Photo by Jim Roese.

The Wilma Theater made its first foray into Shakespeare with Macbeth (extended through November 13). Reset in the 20th century, director Blanka Zizka synthesized her own experiences in Communist Czechoslovakia with the duplicitous intrigues of the Scottish play, thereby reaffirming the universality and timeliness of its themes. Standouts in the supporting cast were Krista Apple, in her dual roles as a “weird sister” and Lady Macduff, and Ed Swidey as Angus. A clever staging of the witches’ cauldron scene, usually set in a cave, substituted a soup tureen on the castle’s dining table, thereby allowing for a more fluid transition in the action.

Referencing Shakespeare in Sylvia

Hollis McCarthy and Maggie Lakis in Delaware Theatre Company’s Sylvia. Photo courtesy of DTC.

Even A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, set in Manhattan in the 1980s, and presented by the Delaware Theatre Company through November 7, referenced Shakespeare. Quotes from Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, and others underlined the characters’ emotions in a touching comedy about an English teacher whose husband unexpectedly brings home a stray dog–played with perfect comedic timing by Maggie Lakis. Rounding out the ensemble were Kurt Zischke as the canine-loving husband, Hollis McCarthy as the stressed-out scholarly wife, and Dave Jadico, hilarious in a trio of male, female, and sexually ambiguous roles, again paying homage to Elizabethan casting convention. As the happy conclusion reminded us, All’s Well that Ends Well!

Enlightenment fiction in Legacy of Light

Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Emilie Krause, and Susan McKey in People’s Light & Theatre Company’s Legacy of Light. Photo by Mark Garvin.

People’s Light & Theatre Company went beyond Shakespeare to the Enlightenment, with Karen Zacarías’s new historical fiction Legacy of Light (closing November 7), about Voltaire, Émilie du Châtelet, and her imagined 21st-century descendants. The intelligent, Stoppardesque script moved smoothly between 18th-century France and present-day America, while offering lessons in both science and life. An inventive glass-installation backdrop and period-style costumes enhanced the fine performances by Stephen Novelli, Susan McKey, Emilie Krause, and the entire cast.

Upcoming – The Beaux’ Stratagem

Promotional poster for Villanova Theatre’s The Beaux’ Stratagem.

George Farquhar’s 1707 The Beaux’ Stratagem, running from November 9-21 at Villanova Theatre promises hilarious observations about society and gender. First produced at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1707, the comedy was adapted by Thornton Wilder in 1939, and finished by Ken Ludwig in 2006. Villanova’s production comes complete with authentic costumes and musical flourishes, including a live harpsichordist, violinist, and flutist.

On the horizon

Promotional poster for Lantern Theater Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Still to come this spring, the two most consistent producers of Shakespeare in Philadelphia will return with their annual offerings; Lantern Theater Company presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre will perform Hamlet and As You Like It in repertory. The most surprising news here is in casting the role of Hamlet. Mary Tuomanen, known for her acrobatic/physical style of acting, is the choice of Director Carmen Khan for the troubled Danish prince. And Lantern director Charles McMahon plans to avoid specific references to ancient Athens in Midsummer, to create, instead, a world of contrasts between rational control and the magical abandonment of reality. Both should prove to be highly original visions.

Looking back at productions now closed

Ensemble in The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s The Duchess of Malfi. Photo by Aaron Oster.

John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, presented as the first full production of the two-year-old Philadelphia Artists’ Collective–rightfully, the talk of the theater community with its ingenious staging at Broad Street Ministry and astute focus on writing, acting and direction. This came as near to perfection as anything I’ve ever seen.

Shakespeare’s Henry V, with an all-male cast in an equally bare-staged, in the round production by Quintessence Theatre Group, now in its inaugural season at Germantown’s Sedgwick Theater.

Eric Scotolati and David Millstone in Plays & Players’ Titus Andronicus. Photo by Drew Hood.

And Titus Andronicus, directed by Liam Castellan at Plays & Players, featuring cross-gender casting in double-digit murders, rape, dismemberments, and cannibalism, with a chilling moment when an unsuspecting audience member was pulled onstage and sentenced to hanging–effectively giving an immediate sense of the shockingly indiscriminate violence that is not limited to Antiquity. Caught the news lately?

It’s interesting to note that in these economically and politically troubled times, theater companies are now, more than ever, presenting the time-honored classics, historical periods and figures, and the moralizing values they embody. Perhaps the common thread is: Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it?

Tags

beaux stratagem, david millstone, delaware theatre company, duchess of malfi, emilie krause, eric scotolati, hollis mccarthy, lantern theater company, legacy of light, macbeth, maggie lakis, mary elizabeth scallen, midsummer night's dream, people's light and theatre company, philadelphia artists' collective, plays and players, shakespeare, susan mckey, sylvia, theatre, villanova theatre, wilma theater

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