Currently represented Off-Broadway by with their production of Andrew Carnegie Presents The Jew Of Malta, the Irondale Ensemble Project continues its mission to make the classics relevant by bold and often radical means.
Jim Niesen, artistic director of the company, explained the company's ethos: "In a way we do experimental research theatre, which grew out of work I was doing in the late 1970's at Long Wharf [Theatre in New Haven, CT]. The idea is to use improvisation and story-telling techniques to further the story and make it relevant. Meanwhile, you want to keep the ALIVENESS of improv, and imbue the big texts with it."
"Also," Niesen continued, "we have an extensive arts and education connection. So it's how we make the teaching of theatre alive and theatrical." Irondale's two main educational projects are the Gateway, a job-oriented service, and Camelot, a drug rehabilitation project.
Another phrase for Irondale's technique is "textual colliding," which Niesen says tries to rid the classics of their baggage. "For example, we did Alfred Jarry's King Ubu years ago. That caused riots back when it first opened, but the punch is no longer the same. So without violating the spirit, we bumped up against the original text with improvisations. It would change every night until it was essentially a ninety-minute vaudeville routine with hoary gags and audience asides. One time we had an actor turn to the audience and say, "For purists who don't appreciate this, we will now return to `Pere Ubu' in the original French. Another actor then started reciting in French-style gibberish, which went off into a whole other improv."
Andrew Carnegie Presents The Jew Of Malta presented a different challenge for the company. "We started exploring the idea of violence in a society, that there's no such thing as 'random violence' per se. Then we saw connections between Christopher Marlowe's play and the 1892 Homestead Strike against Pittsburgh Steel. That was an ugly event on both sides... The original text of Malta opens with an address by Machiavelli; while the strike was going on, Andrew Carnegie went fishing and sent reports back that were in total denial. But anyone worth $50 million in 1890 could not have been an angel." But how does Niesen make such nasty material palatable? "We're not treating it as a tragedy," he said. "It's a very fierce farce, and we tend to use pop culture iconography. There are certainly elements in Malta of a Hope/Crosby "Road" picture. And it works. I remember reading Harold Bloom saying something like, `What a wonderful Barabbas Groucho Marx would have been."
Cast in Andrew Carnegie Presents The Jew Of Malta are Yvonne Brechbuhler, Joe Fuer, Michael-David Gordon, Terry Greiss, Rana Kazkaz, Patrena Murray, John Silvers and Brigitte Viellieu-Davis. Sets are by Ken Rothchild, lighting by A.C. Hickox, and costumes by Hilarie Blumenthal.
Formed in 1983, Irondale Ensemble has since produced 25 Off-Broadway shows, including the American premiere of Bertolt Brecht's Conversations In Exile. Recent productions have included Strindberg's Ghost Sonata (1995), Danton's Death (1994) and The Uncle Vanya Show (1990), a collaboration between Irondale and St. Petersburg's Salon Theatre.
For tickets and information on Andrew Carnegie Presents The Jew Of Malta, which runs at Theatre For The New City on First Avenue through Dec. 21, call (212) 633-1292.
-- By David Lefkowitz