PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, June 26-July 2: Double Header in Central Park

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, June 26-July 2: Double Header in Central Park
 
Shakespeare in the Park took a different tack with summer.
Lily Rabe and Al Pacino
Lily Rabe and Al Pacino Photo by Joan Marcus

Instead of presenting two separate, distinct productions of the Bard's work, the Public Theater decided to employ a unified company of actors for both productions and to have the two plays — The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale — run in repertory. Thus, for the first time in 20 years, Shakespeare in the Park is functioning much like most of the Shakespeare festivals that dot the nation during the hot-weather months.

"I've almost always worked with companies," Public artistic director Oskar Eustis told Playbill.com. "Particularly with Shakespeare, the way you get work with the highest quality is to have artists work together over time. This is the smallest possible unit of time that we can form for a company."

This resulted in a busy week for the critics; Merchant officially opened on June 30 and Tale opened on July 1. Merchant, which stars Al Pacino in the role of Shylock, got the arrangement off to a good start. Critics found the Daniel Sullivan production of the difficult play "marvelous," "gripping" and "darkly tinged." Reviewers seemed to be particularly happy that Pacino — who has played Shylock on the big screen — was content to rein in his usual histrionic stage style and take a subtler approach. The Times also notes that the supporting cast was unusually estimable, including such actors as Lily Rabe, Jesse L. Martin, Hamish Linklater, Byron Jennings and Max Wright.

The Winter's Tale brought less good news. The press thought that Michael Grief rendition was both "emotionally blunt" and "lethargic." Still, others thought the production "terrifically entertaining." But the general feeling was that it suffered greatly in comparison to Merchant, and also dwelled in the shadow of a praised Sam Mendes staging of the play two years ago. Must be a strange sensation for the cast to know that they're part of a hit and a miss at the very same time. It's enough to breed manic-depression.

*** Elf, the new Broadway musical based on the Warner Brothers film, and featuring a new score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, will play a limited holiday engagement at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre beginning Nov. 2, it was announced.

Casey Nicholaw will direct and choreograph the musical that will officially open Nov. 10 and continue through Jan. 2, 2010.

As previously reported, Elf has a book by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray, The Producers).

***

Producers Jed Bernstein and Adam Zotovich have managed to secure the most headline-getting cast imaginable for their upcoming Broadway revival of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy. The fall Broadway premiere (of the Off-Broadway, touring, regional and Hollywood hit) will feature the bell-ringing duo of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. David Esbjornson will direct. Previews will begin Oct. 7 at the John Golden Theatre with an official opening Oct. 25.

Bernstein was for ten years the executive director of the trade group the Broadway League, and, since leaving the post in 2006, has been trying to stake his claim not just as a producers' representative, but a full-fledged producer. He's participated in some hits (Hair) and misses (Oleanna), but this show should put him over as a producing personage. He'd have to work pretty hard not to make money on that title interpreted by those actors.

***

The all-male cast is not a new idea. They do it all the time at the Globe Theater in London, in the name of mimicking the casting practices of Shakespeare's day. Various downtown Manhattan troupes have tried it out on such classics as The Importance of Being Earnest and The Women. And one group in Texas got into hot water with Edward Albee a number of years back when they attempted an all-male Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Men Only was also the tradition when the original plays of Plautus were performed in Roman days. But does that mean such policies should be applied to the Stephen Sondheim's Plautus spoof, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? The Williamstown Theatre Festival thinks so. It launched an all-male production starring Christopher Fitzgerald, and directed by his wife, Jessica Stone, on June 30.

Stone previously spoke with Playbill.com about her concept for the production, which she envisions as "a troupe of actors in Plautus' Rome performing the show, hence the all-male thing. I'm intrigued by the idea of this story, which has been so lovingly crafted in honor of Plautus' comedies, being performed in the way that his comedies would have been."

***

John Willis, the curator of the Theatre World annuals and the Theatre World Awards since the mid-1960s, died last week at age 93. The cause was complications from lung cancer.

Willis was one of those figures who would not be dissuaded from his passion for the stage by any circumstance or argument. The Times reported that he attended roughly 20,000 productions in his lifetime, and was at a theatre almost every night of his life, save two weeks every year when he visited his hometown in Tennessee. Prior to the advent of the Internet and such sites as the Internet Broadway Database, every theatre editor and writer in the country required a complete set of Theater World volumes as an indispensable reference guild. I have been writing about the theatre long enough to recall referring to the annuals once or twice a day.

As for the Theatre World Awards, which honor actors and actresses who are making their New York City stage debut performance, many famous thespians remember them as the first honorary recognition they ever received, and Willis as an early supporter. It is very likely that some performers were persuaded to continue in their career after getting a Theatre World Award. Which is probably the result Willis desired. He seemed to recognize that the effort he saw on stage deserved a similar effort from him as a theatregoer and theatre tracker.

Linda Emond, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Jesse L. Martin
Linda Emond, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Jesse L. Martin
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