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Where There's Will...

Filichia toasts Shakespeare on his 439th birthday by recalling recent New York City productions of his work. logo

Make a wish!
Mark Strong and Emily Watson in Twelfth Night
So, 439 years ago tomorrow, one William Shakespeare was born, and 387 years ago he died -- but his plays sure didn't.

Since his last birthday, Will once again has had a good season in New York, with only a few setbacks. True, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival halved its usual two productions at the outdoor Delacorte. The New York Theatre Workshop canceled its planned production of The Merchant of Venice (not to mention a new play called The Beard of Avon). And then there was Sam Kellerman's play, The Man Who Hates Shakespeare.

Still, Will did well in Manhattan. Even one of the kids in Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway mentions the Bard by name in one of his harangues. And while The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) ended its Off-Broadway run soon after his last birthday, we almost had the complete works of William Shakespeare in other New York venues. There were professional productions of such comedies as As You Like It (outdoors at the Blunt Theatre Company, indoors at the Public and Luna Repertory Company); The Comedy of Errors (Aquila Theatre Company and Genesis Rep); Love's Labour's Lost (Boomerang Theatre and the Thirteenth Night Theatre Company, whose name was obviously inspired by a Shakespeare comedy); Measure for Measure (at Show World, the former porno palace, where director Damon Kiely staged it in four different rooms to which audiences traveled throughout the show); and The Merchant of Venice (at the Revolving Shakespeare Company, which revolved it in rep with The Doctor of Rome, Nat Colley's play that concentrated on the son of Merchant's Jessica and Lorenzo).

Also: Much Ado About Nothing by the Pearl Theatre Company and the Sonnet Theatre Company, the latter of which thousands knew about because of the giant billboard that advertised it at the New York entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel (I imagine that someone connected with the production has a relative that owns the sign); The Taming of the Shrew (New York Classical Theatre and Genesis Rep); The Tempest (the Pearl and the aptly-named Storm Theatre Company); Twelfth Night (at the Delacorte, in a Sam Mendes production at BAM -- and also in an innovative production by Stephen Burdman, who had his actors and theatergoers enter at 97th Street and Central Park West for the first scene before everyone moved 50 feet to the next scene, then 50 more for the next one, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, every five to seven minutes); and The Winter's Tale at Classic Stage Company.

As for the histories, Henry V was at Jean Cocteau and the Judith Shakespeare Company. The latter also did Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III. The Shakespeare Project did Falstaff, an amalgam of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V. The tragedies included Antony and Cleopatra (by the Queen's Company, which did an all-female production with a Bollywood slant); Hamlet (via Linda Mussman's deconstruction); Julius Caesar (Theatre for a New Audience); King Lear (Classical Theatre of Harlem and the Oberon Theatre Company); Macbeth (by the Ningawa Company at BAM); and Romeo and Juliet (at the Pearl).

Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical
There were musicals inspired by Shakespeare, too. The most high-profile of these was the Broadway revival of The Boys From Syracuse. But The Donkey Show, the musical inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream, did better and passed its 1,000th performance. Off-Off-Broadway displayed musical versions of Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It (which was re-titled All the World's a Stage).

Shakespeare was quoted quite a bit around town. Fortune's Fool, which got its title from one of Romeo and Juliet's most famous lines, was around for a few months of the 2002-2003 season. "It's a palpable hit" sang the original Merrily We Roll Along cast in their 21st reunion concert. In Hollywood Arms, Michele Pawk wrote a freelance magazine article on Cesar Romero that began, "I come to praise Cesar, not to bury him." Craig Lucas's new play, This Thing of Darkness, took its title from a remark Prospero makes in The Tempest: "This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine." John Guare, in his A Few Stout Individuals, had Samuel Clemens cite The Tempest on a couple of occasions. In Roman Nights, Anna Magnani told Tennessee Williams, "We are such stuff as dreams are made of" before Williams said to her, "Anna, you're a tempest."

"This Lady Doth Protest Too Much" said a newspaper headline splashed over the scrim at Shanghai Moon, indicating that the publication had some doubts about Lady Sylvia Allington (Charles Busch). In Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Johnny quoted some of Shakespeare's greatest lines -- "To be or not to be," "If music be the food of love, play on," and "Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look" among them. The Fourth Wall had Charles Kimbrough starting to think that he might very well be an actor in a play rather than a real person, noting that "All the world's a stage and we merely players." It's unlikely that the Bard could have imagined that his "Et tu, Brute?" would be quoted in House of Flowers, let alone in something called Debbie Does Dallas. It did show up there, when Debbie felt her girlfriend Lisa was betraying her like all of her other pals. What's more, at the end of the show, Debbie's boyfriend stepped forward to say, "If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here." (That's the beginning of Puck's closing speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

Shakespearean characters were mentioned all season long, especially in musicals. In Cabaret, Fraulein Schneider, when rejecting Herr Shultz, said, "I am no Juliet and you are no Romeo." In The Boys From Syracuse, those same famous lovers were cited in the verse of "This Can't Be Love," as they were in "It Takes Two" in Hairspray. All three of the York Theatre's fall Musicals-in-Mufti shows -- Jumbo, How Now, Dow Jones, and New Girl in Town -- made reference to the pair. In Zanna, Don't! -- the musical in which a gay world rather than a straight one is the norm -- Mike and Steve knew they were in love because each loved Shakespeare's Romeo and Julio and Antonia and Cleopatra (though both were most interested in those Two Gentlemen of Verona). And all season long, we heard that what Bialystock did to Shakespeare, Booth did to Lincoln.

Jonathan Dokuchitz and Erin Dilly
in The Boys From Syracuse
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Plenty of plays mentioned Shakespearean characters, too. At the New York International Fringe Festival, Saturday Players did Love in Pieces, in which Ryan Brack and Lisa Gardner portrayed Antony and Cleopatra spicing up their sex life with some cross-dressing before portraying Ophelia and Laertes, the former lounging in a bubble bath while the latter babbled about her pretentious boyfriend, you-know-who. The Exonerated had one prisoner tell of the impact that Hamlet and King Lear had on him while he was incarcerated. In Smelling a Rat, a woman said to her boyfriend that she used to eat off a placemat that pictured Lady Macbeth.

The Fourth Sister, at the Vineyard, had a young man say that he was doing his dissertation on Hamlet. Wonder if he included that the Ghost of Hamlet was mentioned in Endpapers? Did he also include the theory "Was Hamlet the Kurt Cobain of his day?" as was postulated in the play What Didn't Happen? Laurence O'Keefe said in A Straight Man's Guide to Show Tunes that he's working on a new musical in which a birthday clown wants to play Hamlet; I'm looking forward to seeing it!

Then there were shows inspired by Shakespeare -- such as William Shakespeare's Haunted House, a Halloween attraction that offered characters from Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest. There was Shakespeare's Women: Under the Corset at American Theatre of Actors. And Kevin Kline did Shakespeare Live! as a one-night benefit for The Acting Company to celebrate that troupe's 30th anniversary. Finally, Genesis Rep held 44 staged readings of plays either attributed to Shakespeare or suspected to be by him. If some of them are proved to be the Bard's -- I'm hoping The Merry Devil is -- this list could be even longer next year.

I'm not the only one who's interested in celebrating Shakespeare's Birthday. Come next Monday, April 28 at 6:30 pm, Theatre for a New Audience will hold a cocktails-and-dinner gala to boost the Bard. The emcee will be Elliott Goldenthal, a recent Oscar-winner for Frida, and the guests will include Cherry Jones, Dana Ivey, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave (who'll give the official toast to Shakespeare). Entertainment will be provided by the ever-fetching Jessica Molaskey and her husband John Pizzarelli's trio. The event will take place at the Powerhouse at the American Museum of Natural History, 79th Street and Columbus Avenue. Tickets are $500 and up; for more information, call Cathy Dantchik at 212-398-1133, ext. 12, or e-mail [email protected]


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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