Irondale Ensemble’s marking of the Shakespeare anniversary (his death was 400 years ago) is exciting and original—with a completely avant-garde American pulse. Six actors play four works by the Bard in a cavernous, two-level space in an historic Brooklyn church, during a painless four plus hours—where there are also breaks and a picnic (provided by caterer Naturally Delicious). The rationale for bringing together Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet is that they were all written during one year, 1599, as scholar James Shapiro has illuminated in his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005). Finding that fact inspirational, Irondale then spent six years sculpting their evening, with a mostly spare design, using rigorous and sensitive editing of the texts by, and according to the concept of, co-founder and director Jim Niesen.
Of course, it’s all insane—these sound like Russian artists, or downtown bohemians of yesterday, not Americans tackling the star system now (Irondale has been in existence since 1983). Philosophically, the plays raise the question of whether America needs this kind of theater, no matter how idealistic the concerns of the troupe. Even in several years where Shakespeare is getting special attention; even in a time where everyone talks about acting and appearing on YouTube videos, the play is not the thing—packaging, marketing, and promotions typically are. What are the cumulative advantages of knowing about the works of Shakespeare, anyway? Does it matter that his breakthroughs in soliloquies are based on English texts following the essay writing of Montaigne or that As You Like It changed the way love could be portrayed on stage by making it more complex? Is it worth comparing the issue of censorship in Julius Caesar to IRS targeting of conservatives during the Obama years or seeing Shakespeare’s depiction of war in Henry V as commenting not only on Ireland in his time, but also on America’s wars in this and the last century (or all wars, for that matter)? A crucial insight about Shakespeare today is not that he has allowed a celebration of his plays, but that we might quietly be disallowing or disavowing his work by not listening to and understanding the depth of his thoughts.
Perhaps, the issue of significance in Shakespeare has surfaced due to the succinct gestures and dramatic points made by the Irondale actors. The telegraphing of meaning through the verse works very swiftly—and the actors appear to have a deep symbiosis. While these impressions were made while watching 1599, later this reviewer was to find that the goal of the company is to bring “a strong sense of improvisational aliveness to scripted performances.” You’ll see this in the multiple parts (87 roles) played by either sex and the many types the actors inhabit—deciding whether an actor uses facets of him- or herself to create the character or whether the character is created via entirely imaginative means is part of the fascination. You might decide, for example, that you’ve seen one of the most compelling Hamlets (Joey Collins) of any that are constantly advertised—and you might mull the role of the artist, too—what the actors in this company have sacrificed to be taken seriously.
Collins is actually something of a surprise, because we haven’t expected his wide range until Hamlet is performed. Our attentions are focused differently during different parts of the evening—with the shifting scenes to several playing areas, each of the six actors is allowed to shine as a soloist. Michael-David Gordon plays Brutus and Touchstone, among others—playing serious and comic parts. Terry Greiss is Claudius and Cassius, plus—as he backs off the stage as the Ghost in Hamlet, we feel his actor’s toolkit must be immense and varied. Sam Metzger is Orlando and Laertes and more—comically finding a laugh in his pronunciation of A . . . liena in As You Like It. Alex Spieth’s Henry V is very strong, and she may remind you of a Karen Finley. Katie Wieland is Rosalind and Gertrude, among other roles: why was I reminded of Claire Bloom? Of course it doesn’t do to compare each of them, and these are few examples of their talent, because they have worked in a very Shakespearean way, suiting “the action to the word and the word to the action.” One of the pleasures to be seen in the Irondale Ensemble is that the work is coming from a company that is mature—it knows what it is doing and who it is. And the cast certainly shows endurance. Also nice is that the actors have a sense of mystique about them.
For those who have thought that directing even a single Shakespearean play is challenge enough, the 1599 experiment is so outrageous that it either appears comic or boring. The truth is that it’s neither. This is the kind of project that does make us see a living Shakespeare, whether interest is in his thoughts on politics and war or language, or elsewhere. As we resist seeing the Bard as a commodity and see him as more than an un-understandable wordsmith, we are giving power back to the experience, instead of the hype. We do not superficially know of something that seems too formidable, we actually live with the thing itself for an extended period–and come to a more resonant understanding of the material. Done at the epic level of 1599, such an experience is vivid and memorable, and you might even say that it matters.
Hamlet, Antony, Jaques, Chorus Henry V, Bardolph, king of France, etc.
Brutus, Touchstone, Horatio, Exeter, Pistol, player king, Guildenstern, etc.
Claudius, Cassius, Duke Senior, Duke Frederick, Silvius, Archbishop, Alice, etc.
Orlando, Laertes, Octavius, Fluellen, the Dauphin, Casca, Rosencrantz, Oliver, Jacque Dubois, etc.
Henry V, Celia, Polonia, Phoebe, Audrey, Portia, Calpurnia, the Gravedigger, etc.
Rosalind, Gertrude, Ophelia, Caesar, Katharine, Montjoy, Ely, Pindarus, etc.
Associate Scenic Designer
Assistant Stage Manager
In the Lights: Kimberly Giannelli, Amber Henrie
Nat Nichols: Photos
Visit Irondale Ensemble: http://irondale.org/
Visit Naturally Delicious: http://www.naturallydelicious.com/
© 2016 by Bob Shuman. All Rights reserved.