Dream Panel: Shakespeare Parley at Sardi’s

“A muse of fire” lit up the Eugenia Room, as Charles Wright recounts, for Drama Desk’s panel, “Why Shakespeare? Why Now?”

Eighty Drama Desk members and guests gathered to celebrate – a few days early -William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday on Friday, April 4, 2014, for a luncheon-panel that featured five distinguished theater professionals, moderated by scholar-author-translator Carol Rocamora, addressing the topic “Why Shakespeare?  Why Now?”

Rocamora introduced the proceedings with a quick tally of the current New York theater season’s high Shakespeare quotient.  “Shakespeare,” she said, “attracts the finest theater artists on the English-speaking stage,” who have no difficulty finding things “fresh, vital, and new in these 400-year-old texts.”  For the 90 minutes that followed, Rocamora conversed with her panelists — actors John Glover, Michael Pennington and Scott Shepherd, and directors Daniel Sullivan and Julie Taymor — about why the Bard remains essential to the modern theater.

Pennington, the leading actor in one of four productions of King Lear premiering in New York in a seven-month period, led off with remarks about the brilliance and depth of the play which has brought him across the Atlantic this season.  Currently appearing at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District, Pennington was the sole panelist whose show was still in performance.  He described King Lear as a “family story” that “starts out simply” and builds, in profundity and dramatic force, to a pitch that’s “savage, unremitting and cruel – almost the last word on human brutality.”  It is, he said, a tragedy that challenges the stamina and intellect of those on both sides of the footlights; and its leading role is “athletic” (“especially in the first half”) and “daunting as a cliff face.”  Pennington cautioned his fellow actors not to undertake the part of Lear until “your blood really runs to it.”  “You have to play Lear when you’re old enough [to be convincing], but sufficiently youthful to learn the lines,” he explained.

Rocamora introduced Taymor as “a theater magician” and asked her to tell about the genesis of her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Theatre for a New Audience last autumn.  “I had the good fortune of being asked to open the company’s new facility last year and I tried to use all aspects of that wonderful house,” the director-designer said.  “When I first went to see how the new theater was coming along,” she recalled, “the workers were there with their tools and hard hats.”  The “empty space” and the construction in progress were inspiration, she said, to design a production in which “everything was done by hand” rather than being programmed by computer.

Taymor, who has directed Shakespeare on screen (Titus in 1999 and The Tempest in 2010) as well as stage, spoke of the Bard’s “bravado, depth and love for his characters.”  Shakespeare is “the most daring of artists,” she said.  “He shakes you up and causes you to question your own morality.”  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taymor remarked, “you have tragedy next to comedy” and “you never know who the hero is because the protagonist shifts.”  She summed up Shakespeare as “a cynic, but a cynic with the biggest heart.”

Sullivan, who directed The Comedy of Errors in Central Park last year and is scheduled to direct King Lear on the same stage this summer, observed that “even the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t easy.”  He discussed the wisdom – or, in his view, the necessity — of editing Shakespearean texts for contemporary performance.  Before rehearsals begin, Sullivan explained, he works closely with a dramaturge to “eliminate anything and everything we can’t make clear and thoroughly comprehensible to an audience that may be seeing the work for the first time.”

Taymor endorsed Sullivan’s policy of bold cuts in the interest of clarity.  “I reject the idea that any text is sacrosanct,” she said.  Shepherd, who appeared this season in Cry, Trojans, The Wooster Group’s version of Troilus and Cressida, agreed that “these plays can withstand everyone’s cuttings and all different interpretations.”   Pennington added an emphatic coda to the discussion of textual editing:  “Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays come to a halt in Act Four and pick up again in the final Act,” he said.  “Cut them! They’re too long!”

Rocamora commended Glover and Shepherd as “very brave actors.”  At the moderator’s request, Glover recounted how he came to play one of the three witches in Jack O’Brien’s 2013 production of Macbeth at Lincoln Center Theater, and how his characterization of the part evolved.

Glover said that, to his surprise, O’Brien “pitched” him the role when the production was in the early planning stages, but that the idea of making the character hermaphroditic was entirely his own.  Early in rehearsal, Glover recalled, he decided his character should have pendulous breasts.  Costume designer Catherine Zuber, who liked Glover’s idea, constructed the costume in secret so the actor could spring his altered figure on an unwitting O’Brien.  The surprised director approved the choice.

Shepherd elicited guffaws from the audience when he interposed that he, too, has played a witch in Macbeth.  “But I defer to you, John,” Shepherd said, “because I didn’t have breasts.”

Shepherd, who has appeared in two recent versions of Hamlet, discussed his changing view of certain Shakespearean characters:  “As an actor, you spend your life with these plays and you see them from different angles at different ages.”

Shepherd spoke about Annie Dorsen’s Hamlet-based “algorithmic” solo drama, A Piece of Work, which he did at BAM in December 2013, and the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, which ran at the Public Theater in 2007 and at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013.  In the latter, the live actors shared their roles with moving video images of the players in the 1964 Broadway Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton.  Shepherd compared this Wooster Group enterprise, conceived by Elizabeth LeCompte, to an archeological expedition “reconstructing an ancient temple.”  Collaborating with Burton, who has been dead almost 30 years, Shepherd said, “was something different [from ordinary stage work] that became quite beautiful and meaningful.”

At the end of a brief period of questions from the audience, Drama Desk member Grazyna Drabik, who covers New York theater for Nowy Dziennik (Polish Daily News), offered a spontaneous tribute to the five stage artists on the dais and their moderator.  Standing in the back of the room with her arms spread wide in a gesture of benediction, Drabik lauded the featured speakers as a “dream panel.”  “You remind us what’s amazing about Shakespeare,” she said.  “Shakespeare gives us hope.  He renews our faith in humanity and in the theater.  And the theater, when it’s fun – oh, my God – we’re in paradise!”