By Donna Herman
Illyria, written and directed by Richard Nelson, and currently enjoying its world premiere at The Public Theater, is a biographical look at The Public’s founder, Joseph Papp, and his struggles to establish the iconic New York Shakespeare Festival. It’s a dramatic tale filled with ambition, creativity, genius, pride, politics, manipulation, celebrity and historically significant events from 60 years ago. For theater and history buffs, Illyria feels like a corner seat in the room where it happened.
Illyria takes place in three scenes set in 1958 between April and August. A greenroom in the Heckscher Auditorium where the fledgling Shakespeare Workshop performed during the winter months, a room in actress Colleen Dewhurst’s (Rosie Benton) apartment, and a temporary stage on the Belvedere lawn in Central Park at night. While the young Joe Papp (John Magaro) is not constantly on stage, his presence is always front and center. He’s clearly the sun around which all the stars in his universe orbit. In the first scene, the stage manager John Robertson (Max Woertendyke) tells the director Stuart Vaughn (John Sanders), his girlfriend Mary Bennett (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) who is an actress and waiting to audition for Joe and Stuart, and David Amram (Blake Delong) the musician and composer, about the fiasco of the school matinee that has just ended and Joe’s infuriating, high-handed decisions, and actor George C. Scott’s outrageous behavior.
The stage is set. Stuart keeps apologizing to Mary for how late Joe is and keeps sending his wife Gladys (Emma Duncan), who is also Joe’s assistant, out to look for him. Joe is a great man who can’t be bothered to be on time. When he finally breezes in, it’s almost shocking how diminutive he is in stature because his presence is so strong. He completely takes over the room, and it is very clear he’s got an agenda, and an axe to grind.
What’s engrossing about Illyria is that although you know this is about THE Joseph Papp, who will go on to establish not only the NYSF, but the theater you’re sitting in that brought the world Hair, A Chorus Line and the theatrical phenomenon Hamilton, it’s actually a quiet, realistic piece about some kids who have a dream and no money. Nelson lays out all the struggles and the obstacles, not least of which is Papp’s well-documented volcanic temperament. But in the span of these few months, the major hurdles he has to get across are set in his path.
And while Joe, portrayed with great finesse by relative unknown John Magaro, is the driving force here, it’s equally fascinating to see how those in his orbit deal with his ego and autocratic ways. As an audience member I’m always putting myself into the situations I see on stage to test out how I think I would act and react. What would I do in that situation? In Illyria we have a husband and wife, Stuart and Gladys Vaughn, both creatively committed to Papp’s vision, both have been with him since the start – at the time of the play a couple of years – both in the circle of friends as well as co-workers. But they wind up having very different feelings about Papp and different relationships with him by the end of the play. I only wish that Nelson had showed us a little more about how that impacted their relationship as husband and wife.
But I suppose Nelson has been quite smart about setting up the early story and leaving it before any of the struggles get resolved. After all, we’re sitting there, we know what happens in the end. But the characters on stage don’t. And we leave them after the last show of the summer season of 1958. The mobile stage is no longer mobile, Robert Moses has told them they have to start charging for Shakespeare in the Park or they can’t use the parks, and Joe has been fired from his job at CBS because he refused to name names when called to testify by the McCarthy era HUAC. Joe, Bernie & Merle are on the stage drinking from a flask as the rain comes down. They are determined to stay in the park though. That’s the only place they want to be.
Illyria Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
WITH: John Magaro (Joe Papp); Kristen Connolly (Peggy Papp); Fran Kranz (Merle Debuskey); John Sanders (Stuart Vaughn); Emma Duncan (Gladys Vaughn); Blake Delong (David Amram); Max Woertendyke (John Robertson); Rosie Benton (Colleen Dewhurst); Will Brill (Bernie Gersten); Naian Gonzalez Norvind (Mary Bennett)
Scenic Design by Susan Hilferty; Scenic Design by Jason Ardizzone-West; Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer; Production Stage Manager, Theresa Flanagan; Stage Manager, Jared Oberholtzer. Presented by The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director. Through Sunday December 10th at 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. For tickets: Call 212-967-7555, or visit the box office every day from 2:00pm to 6:00pm (or 30 minutes past last performance of the day), or online at www.publictheater.org.