Theater Review: The Public Theater Stages Its Own Origin Story

By
Onstage at the Public, a play about the Public: Illyria. Photo: Joan Marcus

As the lights in the Public’s Anspacher Theatre began to dim at the start of Illyria — Richard Nelson’s searching, anti-theatrical ode to a theater — the opening chords of the Decemberists’ “A Beginning Song” filled the space and my heart gave a little jump. The Decemberists are a Portland-based alt-folk-rock band whose lush, hyperarticulate storytelling songs changed 17-year-old Sara’s life forever: If you’re in your early 30s and an indie fan, chances are you’ll catch some serious feelings when Colin Meloy’s voice comes over the speakers. Watching the company of Illyria move through the half-light — arranging furniture, rolling out rugs, and setting up their playing space with an unhurried, cooperative sense of calm — I was catching those feelings (and the play hadn’t even really begun). I also couldn’t help but wonder: Why this very contemporary — as much as I hate to say it, millennial, even — song to begin a story set half a century ago?

That story is, to put it mildly, close to home. Nelson — who has directed his own play with the unobtrusive touch of a documentary filmmaker — has created a kind of 50th-birthday present for the theater where he’s made a home (over the past decade, Nelson has premiered both his “election cycles,” the Apple Family plays, and the Gabriel plays, as well as Conversations in Tusculum at the Public). Now he has turned his sights on the origins of that home. His characters are now the ghosts in the walls around us.

Though characters doesn’t even feel like the right word. The ten actors in Illyria are doing delicate, absorbing work conjuring very real people. The play is quite literally understated: a fleet of mics hang from the ceiling to pick up the dialogue, and you lean in a bit as your ear adjusts to the muted, sometimes overlapping, ultranaturalistic flow of speech. The people we’re watching speak softly while carrying a pretty enormous stick. They’re responsible for the very building in which we’re sitting. They are the founding fathers and mothers of the New York Shakespeare Festival — the low-budget, high-aspirations endeavor that went from angering authorities and barely scraping by in the 1950s to birthing one of the most powerful cultural institutions in the country. (Notably, about 20 years after Illyria takes place, the Public had one of its biggest breakout successes with A Chorus Line, another moody tribute to the theater life.) Central among this young, scrappy, and hungry gang is the now-legendary producer and artistic director, Joe Papp, here portrayed as a brooding, deceptively reserved, insatiably ambitious 37-year-old by the compelling John Magaro.

It’s hard to imagine Illyria — which is half love-song to the Public and half anthropological study of its salad days — ever playing anywhere else. If I were feeling uncharitable, I might even call it navel-gazing — but perhaps that’s all right when you have, admittedly, a very interesting navel. Nelson’s play takes place between April and August of 1958, chronicling a summer of upheaval and redefinition for the young Shakespeare Festival, which has recently moved from the Lower East Side into Central Park. Over the course of five months, Papp and his comrades weather personal pettiness and betrayal, the ugly tides of McCarthyism, obstruction from New York City “master builder” Robert Moses and his parks department, and, as always, the question of how they’ll all survive — financially, spiritually, emotionally — to go once more unto the breach the next year.

Meanwhile, of course, they’re also trying to put on a show. Illyria takes its name from the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the play that Papp and his director Stuart Vaughan are trying to mount on a makeshift stage on the Belvedere lawn in Central Park that summer. John Sanders gives a nuanced performance as Vaughan, a man whose career is taking off faster than Papp’s, who’s smart, driven, and well-intentioned and yet — so Illyria would have us believe — hindered by self-absorption and conventional-mindedness.

Though the banter in Nelson’s first scene is casual and humorous (there’s lots of knowing eye-rolling about the drunken-belligerent-genius behavior of George C. Scott, Illyria’s resident Sir Not Appearing in This Film), tension is in the air. Vaughan wants a young actress named Mary Bennett for his Olivia (Naian González Norvind, playing an ingénue who’s perhaps not as docile as she lets on). Papp wants the role to go to his wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly, movingly self-effacing as a new mother who longs to return to acting and who knows in her heart that she’s not equal to her competition). Because Papp is Papp — undeniably the king even among his friends — Olivia will go to Peggy. But a rift is opening. Stuart Vaughan will walk, leaving Papp to direct the play himself, and the next time this pair meets, barely healed wounds will be scratched wide open.

Illyria is such a slice-of-life (re)enactment of the idiosyncratic web of intimacies, loyalties, egos, tastes, ideas, fears, and ambitions that define daily life for those that make theater that it almost feels more like documentary or museum re-creation than theater itself. But despite its conscious avoidance of the dramatic, the piece ultimately works its way between your ribs. There’s got to be a German word for that feeling of simultaneous encouragement and despair — especially as it applies to this impossible, incomparable profession. I feel it regularly as writer, theater-maker, and as audience member, and I felt it during Illyria as I watched these young titans-to-be fretting over money and mission and integrity, not knowing if they’d make it another summer, bickering and dreaming and working on relationships bound to fall apart. (Peggy and Joe Papp’s marriage ended in divorce, as did Stuart Vaughan’s with his wife, Gladys, Papp’s loyal assistant and ultimately the first woman to direct for the New York Shakespeare Festival, in a soft-spoken, unflappable performance by Emma Duncan.) The familiarity is both heartening and depressing. The upstarts become the Establishment. New upstarts come along. History decides who lives, who dies, who tells the stories. The needle skips back to the beginning and the record plays again.

Perhaps there’s simply an English word for the feeling: melancholy. That particular kind of sadness that feels a little pleasurable in its heaviness, the sadness of Shakespeare’s Jaques and the sadness of that imaginary land Illyria. In the final scene of Nelson’s play, Papp sits on his stage in the park after Twelfth Night’s closing performance — a stage he’ll have to haul away and scrap tomorrow, since of course there’s nowhere to store it. His most loyal friends are with him: the press agent Merle Debuskey (a generous, forthright performance by Fran Kranz) and the stage manager Bernie Gersten (Will Brill in a playful, utterly appealing turn as the man who would go on to lead Lincoln Center for almost 30 years as executive producer — a fact that’s something of a wry Easter egg in Illyria, whose characters throw a good deal of shade at the “Palace of Art” for “rich people” that was just beginning construction near Columbus Circle in 1958).

As the night wears on and a storm moves in, the three men pass a flask and quietly share in that sweet, specific kind of melancholy that comes with closing a show. Even a not-very-good one. (“Bernie, did you really like the play tonight? My direction?” asks Joe, to which Bernie replies with affection and honesty: “Didn’t rain.”) It’s a gorgeous trio of restrained longing and uncertainty. And as I listened to the three break into snatches of Twelfth Night’s closing tune, “The rain, it raineth every day,” I realized that whoever chose the Decemberists as the troubadours of Illyria made the right decision. “A Beginning Song” is an anthem to continuing the work in the face of the vast unknown. “I am waiting; should I be waiting?” it goes, as unresolved as Feste’s song from over four centuries ago. “I am wanting; should I be wanting? I am hopeful; should I be hopeful?” Those questions mark every day of a life devoted to making real the fantastical shores of Illyria.

Illyria is at the Public Theater, of course, through December 10.

Theater Review: The Public Stages Its Own Origin Story