A Philly Take on Willy Shakes

A Philly Take on Willy Shakes

There comes a time in every season when the theaters of Philadelphia bring the works of William Shakespeare to life. This year it so happens, the theaters are all putting on the Bard’s works at roughly the same time. Each theater is trying to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s carefully crafted works. But why are these theaters so intent on producing Shakespeare with an edge?

The Barrymores must be at fault. Not the family but the awards. After a brief hiatus, the awards that honor excellence in theater in Philadelphia area are back and last year it was a new take on the Bard performed by the fresh talent Inis Nua Theatre that ended up walking away with all the coveted awards including Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical, Outstanding Direction of a Musical, Outstanding Leading Actress in a Musical and more. But Shakespeare is not known for his Broadway quality musicals. Nonetheless, Inis Nua’s production of David Greig’s risqué take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy, Midsummer [a play with songs] garnered positive press and large audiences. The play, originally performed in Edinburgh at the the fringe festival, loosely takes the story of Midsummer Night’s Dream and turns it into a contemporary romantic comedy complete with heartbreak, sex, music and laughs.

Now the well-established theaters of Philadelphia are attempting to compete with this well-received approach to the Bard. So what are theaters like The Wilma, The Arden, and The Lantern doing this season to bring something new to the well known and often performed plays of Shakespeare? There will be no new texts like Midsummer [a play with songs], just alternative strategies to illuminate the Bard’s beautiful use of language.

Walking down Broad Street it is hard to miss the posters of Philadelphia veteran actor, Zainab Jah plastered on the front of the Wilma Theater’s prime location. The artistic director, Blanka Zizka, has taken a huge risk in casting a female actor in the title role of perhaps Shakespeare’s best tragedy, Hamlet. In an interview posted on The Wilma Theater’s website, Blanka Zizka speaks to her choice in casting Jah, “I needed an actor who I could trust…Hamlet is not going to change gender because he’s played by a woman, rather, I expect that Zainab is going to transform into Hamlet” What the press surrounding The Wilma’s production is lacking is the discussion of race. Philadelphia is an incredibly heterogeneous city with an African American population that exceeds the Caucasian population.

In choosing Jah as Hamlet, Zizka appeals to a demographic usually untouched by the well-established non-profit theaters of Philadelphia. With the average Philadelphia theater subscriber clocking in at an average age of sixty and coming from a privileged white background, casting a black female Hamlet goes completely against the grain. Will the Wilma’s typical demographic be able to cope with such an adventurous choice and will the Barrymore voters respond positively?

It seems unlikely. With the recent national conversation about race in America and police brutality, putting a black woman in such a powerful role is interesting, but ultimately, Zizka is asking Jah to play a white man and reject her own dialogic patterns and culture. Dramaturg for the Wilma, Walter Bilderback, says that in choosing this production of Hamlet with Zizka, the idea was “that we wanted our Hamlet to be about Hamlet within his society.” But how can the production look at Hamlet the character in society, and not Jah in her own society? The set designs for the production utilize designs from street artist CERA, a type of art more common to the lower income neighborhoods of Philadelphia primarily occupied by people of color. It just seems as though the entire production team and the theater is skirting around the issue of race. The conversation about the set design, costume design, and Bilderback’s blog post all fail to mention race. Is ignoring race a sign of attempting to move toward a post-racial society? Or is it part of the whitewashing that is ubiquitous among regional theaters all throughout the United States? Despite my doubts, I am still incredibly curious to see how Zizka brings the story of Hamlet to life for Philadelphia audiences, as she has been so successful in bringing new and established stories in the past.

Competing directly with The Wilma’s Hamlet is The Arden Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth. Both tragedies are taking the stage this month and there is a constant competition between the two theater houses to create interesting and engaging material for audiences. Using Philadelphia native Alexander Burns as a director is a bold choice for the Arden which has a group of directors it seems to pull from every season, rarely bringing on anyone too new. Burns is young and has been working on the fringe-theater side of Philly for the past several years and Macbeth marks his Arden directorial debut. But you can’t have too many unfamiliar faces if you want to appeal to Philly subscribers so accomplished Shakespearean actor and Arden Theatre veteran Ian Merrill Peakes takes the title role. In advertising the production, The Arden attempts to appeal to the latest craze: Netflix. The description of the play reads “Before House of Cards and Game of Thrones there was Macbeth.” This seems obvious to the well-read Shakespeare buff but in a time of obsessive binge watching, advertising Macbeth as a play with all the riveting twists and turns of fad tv shows like House of Cards in only 2 hours time is incredibly appealing.

The Arden Macbeth attempts to make the riveting action of the plot more accessible to its audience members by physicalizing it. The show features incredible bouts of well-choreographed stage combat with attractive men dressed in military camouflage. Nationally renowned fight choreographer, Paul Dennhardt, worked with each actor and choreographed to a t each movement. Each actor is encouraged to have their own fighting style to show who they are allied with in the story. This lively physical combat is complimented by the beautiful set and modern costumes.

This all seems well and good, but is an entertaining production with some good fight choreography edgy enough to win a Barrymore? What makes this production of Macbeth different than any of the other hundreds of productions that occur throughout the United States at any given time? Burns’ vision for the show is not necessarily to be edgy or beat out the other theaters, but just to get people off of their couches and into the theater. Burns wants to create a Macbeth that everyone wants to watch, not necessarily just the theatrical intelligentsia. Accessibility is key to Burns’ vision to the show. HE wants to create the kind of buzz that an action film gets and with the praise from The Philadelphia Inquirer and several sold out performances, it seems Burns’ vision is becoming a reality.

If your Shakespearean palate is not in the mood for death and decay, fear not, The Lantern Theater Company is mounting the Bard’s comedy, Taming of the Shrew. The much smaller company should not be ignored because of its size. Between the three theaters doing the Bard’s works, it is The Lantern that won a Barrymore for producing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last year as well as 3 other Barrymores for a variety of other shows. Their range of artistic feats makes them a huge contender to take home more awards this year.

The Lantern’s concept for their production of Shrew is to physicalize the sexual tension that lie within the text through dance, tango and Latin inspired dances specifically. The Lantern’s description for the production says the main question is “who is going to lead?” which speaks to their physicalization of the power play that exists between Katherine and Petruchio. Artistic Director for the Lantern, Charles McMahon, will also be directing this production though he has said little about his concept beyond that it will incorporate dance and be incredibly sexy. Despite this lack of description about the concept, the show must be impressing preview audiences as its run was just extended several weeks into the month of May.

Whether or not you have a chance to see one or all of these Shakespeare productions, Philadelphia theaters are making a serious effort to bring high quality and interesting Shakespeare productions to the community. Whether or not they are successful in doing so, is up to you…and the Barrymore voters.


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