Before Hamilton, A Chorus Line, Hair, before Joseph Papp built the Public Theater into an institution, he was faced with a fight for survival of his newfound free Shakespeare in Central Park that he seemed destined to lose.
That’s the story in Illyria, a play written and directed by Richard Nelson, who tells his well-researched story in the same low-key, oblique and unorthodox way that he employed in his two play series, The Apple Family and The Gabriels. The style – quietly, realistically acted “in real time,” minimally designed – seemed better suited for those previous pieces, which presented ordinary (and imagined) families during significant national events or anniversaries.
In Illyria, it is 1958, several years after the birth of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and things are not going well for either the festival or for its producer. CBS has fired Papp, and he’s been hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, for past political activities. This makes it harder to battle Robert Moses, the head of New York City Department of Parks (and much else in the city), who wants to keep the free Shakespeare out of Central Park, and has come up with several underhanded strategies to make this happen. Besides all this, Papp and the rest of the people involved in the theater have to scramble just to put on their shows, with little support. Even the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada refuses to lend them their costumes from a previous production because it opposes Papp’s policy of charging no admission.
None of this is dramatized so much as revealed through conversation in three scenes set several months apart. The first scene takes place after a “school matinee” in a city building, which Papp and his colleagues were using to audition for Twelfth Night (Illyria is the setting of Shakespeare’s play.) We see friction between producer Papp and Stuart Vaughan, founding artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Vaughan wants to cast a newcomer as Olivia; Papp wants to cast his own wife Peggy.
“One big reason I started this theater, Stuart, was to give Peggy a place to act,” Joe snaps. Stuart replies he hopes that’s not true.
Other sources of the tension are eventually revealed. Stuart has just gotten a job with a theater that actually pays, although he promises he can do both jobs. Later, Stuart says what he thinks of the festival, which is not much: “…the real reason we don’t want to charge…is because we’re afraid no one will come if we do.”
He says this in the second scene, which takes place at Colleen Dewhurst’s home during a meal in celebration of Papp’s birthday.
The final scene is in Central Park, after the final performance of Twelfth Night on a temporary stage of Belvedere lawn
Illyria is probably best appreciated as a glimpse into the passion that theater ignites in its practitioners, especially for those theatergoers who are not fully versed in the history of the Public Theater and its principal players. Even some sophisticated theater fans will not recognize most of the names, other than George C. Scott (who makes a cameo as an anecdote about his drunken shenanigans), and will not get the inside-baseball irony in the character of Bernard Gersten, who seems to share in Papp’s contempt for the forthcoming Lincoln Center (but went on to become the first executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater.)
Those of us who know the Public (I worked there as a summer usher during high school) will appreciate seeing Papp and the others before they built the permanent Delacorte Theater in Central Park and took over the former mansion of the richest man in America. In Illyria, they are just scrappers, as flawed as the next guy, unaccompanied by celestial trumpets. The playwright slyly has Papp talk admiringly of an early production: “It felt like people. You weren’t putting things on some pedestal. Just life.” Just life seems an appropriate approach for a play about Public Theater founder Joseph Papp that’s being presented at the Public Theater, a way to avoid the appearance of self-aggrandizement.
Yet in that final scene, Joe Papp says at one point: “I’m going to keep this going….if I have to pull that trailer with my goddamn teeth.” At such moments – forgive me—one longs for a more conventionally inspirational backstage drama.
Illyria is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place in the East Village, New York, N.Y. 10003) through December 10, 2017. Tickets and details .
Illyria . Written and Directed by Richard Nelson. Featuring Rosie Benton (Colleen Dewhurst), Will Brill (Bernie Gersten), Kristen Connolly (Peggy Papp), Blake DeLong (David Amram), Emma Duncan (Gladys Vaughan), Naian González Norvind (Mary Bennett), Fran Kranz (Merle Debuskey), John Magaro (Joseph Papp), John Sanders (Stuart Vaughan), and Max Woertendyke (John Robertson). Scenic Designers: Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West. Costume Designer: Susan Hilferty. Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell