by Carol Rocamora
As theatre legends go, Joseph Papp (1921-1991) looms large. This visionary champion of “theatre for the people” founded the free New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954, kept it alive against all odds, and expanded it into the mighty Public Theater with its permanent downtown home. Stories abound about Papp’s pugnacious persona, flamboyant style, and intricate wheelings-and-dealings.
Wouldn’t you want to have met Papp, this larger-than-life impressario, to watch him in action, to be “a fly on his wall,” so to speak, as he transformed a tiny enterprise into a venerable artistic institution?
Now’s your chance, thanks to playwright Richard Nelson. In his absorbing new play, Illyria, Nelson makes you feel like a privileged insider, inviting you behind the scenes to meet Papp and his co-founders, giving you a intimate view of their intense interactions as they struggle to build their beloved theatre.
Over the past decade at the Public, Nelson has developed a unique style as a playwright and director, featuring ensembles living their daily lives, while momentous world events provide the larger context (see the recent Apple Family cycle and Gabriel Plays.) It’s a conversational style of theatre, intimate and non-dramatic – but it makes a deep and lasting impact.
That’s the unusual approach Nelson has taken in Illyria. Instead of giving us an epic tale of Papp’s dramatic rise from a stage manager to the driving force of New York’s off-Broadway theatre, Nelson focuses on a single year in the Public’s history – 1958, a crucial one in its young life. In three scenes, we meet the founders of this fledgling company, as they struggle with issues in their artistic and personal lives.
The first of the play’s three scenes, set in April 1958, features Joe and his co-founders discussing plans for the upcoming summer season, featuring a production of Twelfth Night on a makeshift stage in Central Park (the Delacorte wasn’t built yet). They’ve assembled for auditions in their uptown “greenroom.” Joe (an intense John Magaro) wants his lovely actress-wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly) to play “Olivia”, but director Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders) wants another actress, a newcomer named Mary Bennett (Naian González Norvind). Other colleagues – press agent Merle Debusky (Fran Kranz), composer David Amram (Blake DeLong), stage manager John Robertson (Max Woertendyke), and Papp’s assistant Gladys Vaughan (Emma Duncan) – look on, as the conflict deepens. (The play’s title, Illyria, refers to the fantastical setting of Twelfth Night, while the realistic setting of Nelson’s play is designed by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West).
In the second scene, set in June, simmering tensions come to a height. It’s Joe’s birthday, and newcomer/actress Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton) is hosting a party at her apartment. There’s a crisis: Papp and Bernie Gersten (Will Brill) are under the scrutiny of the House on Un-American Activities. Papp has lost his day-job at CBS, and is struggling to survive financially. Meanwhile, Robert Moses, Parks Commissioner, is pressuring Papp to require paid admission to the Festival’s performances, contrary to Papp’s founding mission. A leadership crisis ensues, as Papp and Vaughan clash on how to proceed.
The final scene, set in August in Central Park, features Papp and a few others after the closing of Twelfth Night, as they savor the last few moments of the evening together. “Look out there, keep looking out there,” says Papp, gazing across the Park. It’s a quiet, textured scene, rich in detail, as they discuss plans to strike and remove the set with a garbage truck Papp will drive. “If it rains, I’m not going anywhere,” says Papp, definitively. The trio then breaks into song from the play they’ve just performed “…and the rain, it raineth everyday…”
That magical moment sums up the character of this complex charismatic leader, who, with his single-minded dedication and limitless passion, led a theatre company through its formative years into a glorious future of challenges and triumphs, of which we all are beneficiaries.
Who hasn’t savored those magical moments at the Delacorte in Central Park, the Shakespeare Festival’s home today, watching a thrilling performance while hearing helicopters overhead and watching raccoons scoot across the stage floor?
And if it rains? As Papp prescribed, the show goes on. “No one’s going anywhere…”
Photos: Joan Marcus
Illyria, written and directed by Richard Nelson, at the Public Theatre, now until December 10 www.publictheater.org