Curtain Rises: Great actors, great plays for 28th season of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
When curating the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) season, Patrick Mulcahy looks for themes, resonances and connections between the plays by William Shakespeare and classic works of theater and the Broadway stage.
For PSF’s 28th annual season, Mulcahy’s 16th season as PSF Producing Artistic Director, beginning in 2003, he says, “The season is stacked to be a blast, just a lot of fun. There’s also this thread of rebellion throughout the season.”
The PSF 2019 season at Labuda Center for the Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, is:
Main Stage, “Crazy for You,” June 12-June 30; “Antony and Cleopatra,” July 10-Aug. 4, in repertory with “Private Lives,” July 18-Aug. 4, plus “Shakespeare for Kids,” July 24-Aug 3.
Schubert Theatre: “The Adventures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian,” the 2019 season children’s show, May 31-Aug. 3; “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” June 20-July 14, and “Henry IV, Part 1,” July 24-Aug. 4.
Continuing with the PSF 2019 season thread of rebellion theme, Mulcahy, says, “‘Henry IV, Part One,’ any history play, there’s always an insurrection.
“Even in ‘Crazy for You,’ there’s a banker who’s rebelling against that and instead wants to be a Broadway hoofer.
“The very nature of ‘Irma Vep’ is rebellion. The playwright, Charles Ludlum, is the master of camp parody. And it also happens to be his funniest play, his most produced play.
“‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ rebellion is in each of their natures. They have big jobs running countries, which each rebels against. They gamble everything for love.
“‘Private Lives,’ the princpal characters, Elliot and Amanda, are each rebels in their own way.
“Even the very nature of high comedy, often what makes it funny, is that people are determined and have been trained to match a certain social decorum.
“In a good high comedy, they’re often driven by the basest of human desires. The comedy is created by the conflict between the desire to transcend to a level of lightning wit and social decorum, but they’re compelled by these volcanic passions. So, sparks fly,” Mulcahy says.
Added to the mix at PSF is the casting of some 61 actors, many from New York and Los Angeles, and many of whom have Broadway, film and television credits.
The Tony Award-winning Best Musical, “Crazy for You,” with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin and a book by Ken Ludwig, stars Broadway actors Danny Gardner and Hayley Podschun as love interests Bobby Child and Polly Baker, respectively.
Gardner’s credits include Broadway’s “Dames at Sea” and National Tours of “White Christmas” and “42nd Street.”
Podschun’s credits include Broadway’s “Hairspray,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Anything Goes,” the National Tour of “Wicked” (Glinda) and the movie, “Hail, Caesar!”
Broadway actress and director Gina Lamparella, who directed PSF’s 2018 season’s “King Richard II,” directs “Crazy for You.”
Making their PSF debuts In “Antony and Cleopatra” are Neal Bledsoe as Roman triumvir Marc Antony and Nondumiso Tembe as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.
Bledsoe’s television acting credits include “Shameless” and “The Man in the High Castle.” Bledsoe will be featured alongside Val Kilmer in the upcoming feature film, “Soldier’s Heart.“ Other film credits include “Revolutionary Road” and “Sex and the City 2.”
On stage, he starred in Michael Arden’s production of “The Pride” at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, Calif., and originated the role of The Count in Stephen Wadsworth’s “The Figaro Plays,” McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J.
Tembe, born in Durban, South Africa, and daughter of two of Africa’s most successful opera singers, is the first South African actress to receove a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from Yale School of Drama.
Her television credits include recurring roles on History Channel-A+E Studios’ military drama, “Six,” and the role of Mavis in HBO’s “True Blood.”
Tembe’s regional theater credits include performances at the McCarter Theatre Center, Yale Repertory Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, Miller Theatre at Columbia University, and the Boston Court Theatre.
“Antony and Cleopatra” is directed by Eleanor Holdridge, whose Off-Broadway and regional directing credits include 24 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.
Mulcahy directed “Antony and Cleopatra” 10 years ago at PSF. “This will be an entirely different production,” says Mulcahy.
“The first thing I learned as a young actor is that this play [‘Antony and Cleopatra’] is unproducible. It can’t be done. That’s not true. There are something like 57 locales. It’s sweeping in scope, but it’s intimate.
“This is the mirror image of ‘Private Lives,’” Mulcahy says. “Antony and Cleopatra are trying to transcend limitations and contraints that come along with their power,” Mulcahy says.
“Antony and Cleopatra” is in repertory with “Private Lives,” which means that a majority of actors in the casts are in both plays. “Antony and Cleopatra” has a cast of 18. “Private Lives” has a cast of five.
Following his directing of the PSF 2018 season opening musical, “Ragtime,” PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze directs Noël Coward’s comedy, “Private Lives.” Razze, who, until the 2019 season, directed every musical PSF has produced, directs his first PSF non-musical since “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“Dennis [Razze] and I did talk about how they [‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Private Lives’] are kind of the flip side of the battle of the sexes. One is more serious with comedy. The other is fundamentally comedic with some serious undertones.”
“The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a sendup of Victorian melodrama described as a “comedic, quick-change tour-de-farce,” has two actors playing multiple roles. PSF veteran actor and director Jim Helsinger returns to direct “Irma Vep,” which he directed in 2007. Helsinger’s PSF directing credits include “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (2017), “The Foreigner” (2015), “Lend Me a Tenor” (2014) and “The Tempest” (2012).
Says Mulcahy, picking up again on the PSF 2019 season of rebellion thread, “The three main artists working on it [‘Irma Vep’] are three comic rebels: Jim Helsinger, who’s directing, and Christopher Patrick Mullen and Brad DePlanche. These three guys built the comedy pillar at PSF.”
“‘Irma Vep’ is the quick-change comedy. When I was in grad school in the early ‘90s, this is the project they gave you to track on paper. Each actor plays a bunch of roles.
“And it goes seamlessly. They walk off stage in one role and back on stage in another role with a costume change. Almost instaneous. The fun for the audience is: ‘How did they do that?’
“Gatorade is in the actors’ contracts. Not kidding. For them to stay hydrated. Every actor who does this play loses weight. It’s a weight-loss program. It’s a play. And it’s a weight-loss program.”
PSF concludes the season with its “sequential progression through the Henriad,” as it’s stated, following the summer 2018 production of “King Richard II.” The next chapter of Shakespeare’s epic cycle is “Henry IV, Part 1.”
The PSF press release calls it “Shakespeare’s richly-layered coming-of-age tale. Prince Hal is called upon to emerge from the raucous hilarity of Falstaff and his antics at the Boar’s Head Tavern to the valor of the battlefield, where he must earn his place as the next great ruler of this ‘sceptered isle.’”
With “Henry IV, Part 1,” PSF continues its tradition of closing the season with “Extreme Shakespeare.” The production is rehearsed similar to what is believed to be the way Shakespeare’s company did. Actors arrive with their lines learned, rehearse on their own, wear what they can find in the PSF costume department, and open in a matter of days. There’s no director and no designers.
Says Mulcahy, “It’s just a briliiant play. Sort of breathtaking in its brillance. It’s the sequel, if you will, to ‘Richard II.’”
Mulcahy has fond memories of the play: “I directed it 15 year ago. And it’s a play I was in in ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ in 1987. Ellen [Mulcahy’s wife] was on Broadway. It was the last play directed by Joe Papp before he died. I was 22. I was the understudy for Hal. I’ve had the opportunity to revisit the play over my lifetime. The play gets better and better.
“Falstaff in this play is at the height of his revelry and his insight. Harold Bloom [American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities, Yale University] compares Falstaff’s mind to Hamlet’s mind. It’s almost like ‘Richard II,’ but now we add some comedy and go through a rebellion at the same time.
“There’s this fascinating juxtalposition to the king at court, Henry IV, and the king in the tavern, Falstaff, and how one kind of informs the other. Hal is caught between those two worlds and caught between them on his way to becoming Henry V.”
“Hal and Hotspur will be played by women. We’re sort of flipping Shakespeare’s practice of all the roles played by men, including the women, in having these roles played by women. Because of the ‘Extreme Shakespeare’ process, [it’s open to interpretation] as to whether they will be women playing men or women playing roles that have been converted to female.
“Part of the idea,” Mulcahy continues, is that “the Elizabethans were led by a queen, but in our world today, the idea of women rising to power in roles traditionally held by men [is often still novel]. This is a reflection of this dynamic.”
For “Henry IV, Part 1,” the roles are about evenly split between men and women, according to Mulcahy.
Glenda Jackson plays the title role in “King Lear,” which opened April 4 and continues through July 7, Cort Theatre, New York City.
“Sarah Bernhardt [1844-1923] played ‘Hamlet.’ This is not a totally new idea. This is part of the pulse,” says Mulcahy.
“What can we learn about how these plays resonate for us now?” muses Mulcahy.
“Whenever you do a play, you’re meeting that magical space between the moment the play was written, the time the play was written about, and now.”
“Antony and Cleopatra” is about Marcus Antonius (83 BC-30 BC) and Cleopatra VII Philopator (69 BC-30 BC) and events surrounding their lives that happened circa 44 BC. The play written by Shakespeare is said to have first been performed by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars Theatre or Globe Theatre circa 1607. The play was first printed in the Folio of 1623.
Can a play more than 400 years old about historic characters from more than 2,000 years ago be relevant to contemporary theater-goers?
“One does not have to work to make these plays relevant,” says Mulcahy. “There’s a universal aspect of what these plays say to us, which is why we’re still doing them 400 years later.
“It’s that which is part of our universal experience. Sitting in a theater, breathing the same air.
“So far, people are stlll coming to see Shakespeare. There must be a reason he’s the most produced playwright by far in the U.S. And they seem to want to come back to them.
“Great actors, great plays. That’s what we’re kind of after here,” says Mulcahy of PSF.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)