The Struggle to Get Shakespeare Into Central Park: Review of ‘Illyria’

In Richard Nelson’s ‘Illyria,’ the Public Theater pays a self-indulgent, and sometimes inaudible, homage to its founder Joe Papp.

The microphones dangle like vines into the sunken stage of the Public Theater’s Anspacher Theater. And you really wish they amplified the sound better, or that the performers spoke up, because at the beginning of Richard Nelson’s play Illyria, you strain to hear what the actors are saying.

Part of the play’s charm is how its characters communicate, which is with a free-wheeling naturalism where sentences clash into each other, and people mutter or giggle and talk over each other. As beguiling as this is, you strain to hear what is being said: the most frustrating form of eavesdropping. Some moments, it’s like listening to the benign hubbub of a restaurant.

We are watching a company of actors, and one very close to home. Before he founded the Public Theater, Joe Papp had founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954, and this group of actors are mounting a 1958 production of Twelfth Night (hence the title of Nelson’s play; Illyria is the setting of Shakespeare’s play).

The plays were performed in Central Park for free, with the city authorities dead-set against them—and yet, as we watch Papp and his peers try to overcome these administrative obstacles, we do so with the knowledge that their legacy lives on today with the Public’s ‘Free Shakespeare In The Park’ in the summer. (There are a limited number of free tickets for performances of Illyria too.)

Back then, the fights were over even getting space to perform for free, and Lincoln Center stealing their open-air Shakespeare idea; this year there was the infamous furore over the Public’s Julius Caesar, featuring a bloody and assassinated Trump-like Caesar.

The plays have gone from being performed on makeshift stages set on the Belvedere lawn in 1958 to the grand space of the Delacorte Theater, which would open in 1962.

As we watch the group we realize so much is in the future; the Public itself is yet to open (1967), and so in focusing on the genesis of this one production we can see the founding ambitions and desires of Papp and those around him. Susan Hilferty's excellent costumes are period, stylishly beached between Beat and sixties cool.

The 1 hour 40 minute, intermission-less play is split into three settings: April 1958 in the green room of the Heckscher Auditorium at Fifth Avenue and 104th Street where auditions for the part of Olivia are taking place; then in June, a supper at Colleen Dewhurst’s apartment on the Upper West Side; and then in Central Park itself, after the final performance of Twelfth Night that August.

The problem is, the play is talking too directly to itself, or to those who know its history, or care enough to know it. It wouldn’t take too much clunky speechifying to inform the audience through the characters of the historical context of what we’re witnessing, and who is who.

It’s even odder that we are supposed to know “Colleen” is Colleen Dewhurst, and that she is in a relationship with George C. Scott. At its worst, Illyria feels not only frustratingly inaudible at times but wincingly smug and self-indulgent.

But the flipside of its self-satisfaction and its desire to talk to, or be understood, by its own crowd, is that it is very easy to fall in love, in fitful stretches at least, with its characters. Nelson, as those who saw the Apple Family and Gabriel play cycles, relishes the ebb and flow of speech, the gatherings at intimate suppers, and conversations that spool.

John Magaro is a mercurial Papp, who plays people off one another and seems an arrogant asshole, but then is also passionate and committed to providing free theatre.

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Even in theatreland, gender roles were set in claustrophobic stone in 1958, and so while Peggy, Papp’s wife (Kristen Connolly) was an actress in her own right, and despite “Colleen” being a name in her own right, and Papp’s assistant Gladys (Emma Duncan) and Mary, a young actress (Naian González Norvind), talented in their own right, they clear up the plates and serve the food when tables need to be filled and cleared.

The tension of the play, and it is far too slight, is that director Stuart (John Sanders), Gladys’ husband, wants to spread his wings. His new Broadway career, and his unwillingness to take on free Shakespeare directing duties, puts him at odd with his friends. They think he’s sold out, he thinks they should grow up (honestly, against what the playwright intends, this audience member sided with Stuart).

You wonder what makes Merle Debuskey (the gentle and urbane Fran Kranz) such a devoted press agent to Papp, as the latter is so rude to him. You wonder about the love triangle of John, David, and Mary, alluded to and never elaborated on. You wonder about Peggy, and about her desires to act set against her desire to act. You want to hear more from Gladys about being caught in the middle of Joe and Stuart’s hostilities.

You wonder about Mary and her apparent passivity when it comes to men. How did Papp and the proto-Public face down the city authorities; what did they learn from the activists who fought, successfully, to save Washington Square from multi-laned choking traffic? Is the play too easy on Papp? It feels like it.

The last very engaging part of the play, just after the final performance of Twelfth Night that August evening, sees Papp and his buddies there in the night-cloaked sylvan setting of the park, with—just as we do when we go to the Delacorte today—airplanes flying overhead (to Idlewild, rather than JFK as it became known), and all the unseen sounds of the park around them. We get to know the characters most intimately here, even if we don’t get to know them well at all.

If Illyria was being performed at the Delacorte, you would likely hear the odd, frustrated cry from the audience: "Speak up! We can't hear you!"

Illyria is at the Public Theater (Anspacher Theater), until December 10. Book tickets here.