Theatre for a New Audience.
By the time you’re thirty-five, you should be ready for a place of your own. So, in a reverse commute that brought them over the river into the Fort Greene Cultural District in Brooklyn late last year, after decades of yearning for it, TFANA’s sparkling new house became the dream home worth waiting for.
In a first season that included Julie Taymor’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (November 19, 2013), and the recent perfect jewel of Peter Brook and Marie-Hėlène Estiennes’ The Valley of Astonishment review, TFANA is now pushing a king-sized envelope with a lavish mounting (19 actors playing 60 parts) of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. John Douglas Thompson stars as the Emperor, a natural role for a multiple award-winner who has specialized in portraying leaders of men (Othello, Macbeth, Richard III, the Emperor Jones) and a king of jazz (Louis Armstrong).
Director Michael Boyd – four-time Olivier Award-winner, a Knight of the Realm, Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for ten years, of seven Shakespeare plays for the Lincoln Center Festival, and the RSC’s commissioner and developer of Matilda the Musical – has created the first major production of Tamburlaine in New York since 1956, and, like TFANA’s theatre itself, worth waiting for. It’s not often we can visit Marlowe’s 16th century in such good company.
Christopher Marlowe was something of a bad boy; a scholarship student at Cambridge who spied for Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, and a double agent later arrested for murder, street-fighting and counterfeiting. This son of a shoemaker also rose to become a brilliant and prolific playwright and poet, whose gifts influenced others – including Shakespeare –long after his death (from an assassin’s knife in a tavern brawl) when he was only 29.
Tamburlaine will run at TFANA’s Polonsky Center through January 4. After that, the season will include two presentations with congenial partners: An Octoroon from Soho Rep, a new adaptation (2014 OBIE, Best New American Play) of Dion Bouccicault’s antebellum melodrama, directed by Sara Benson (February 14 – March 8, 2015 ONLY!). And, from the Fiasco Theatre, Two Gentlemen of Verona – perhaps Shakespeare’s first play – directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld. Both were deeply involved in the still-missed wonder-production of Cymbeline https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/apollos-girl-16/ (shameless indulgence: I saw it two nights in a row) It’s great to have them back at TFANA! (From April 24 – May 24, 2015 ONLY!) Truth is, the only smart move is to ensure you’ve got tickets to the entire season: info and tickets
Ensemble Studio Theatre
Over the years (36 since it was founded), Ensemble Studio Theatre has created a body of new plays known for their fearlessness and variety and―recently―for traveling well to other venues with works that have first been developed in situ on far West 52nd Street. An ebullient example is Robert Askin’s Hand to God, starring Steve Boyer, who deserved a medal for perfecting the skills of hand puppetry that put a brilliant play right over the top, and led (via another recent production of it) directly to Broadway. review It’s due to open on April 8, 2015, at the Booth Theatre.
Most recently (in another congenial partnership, with the Women’s Project Theater), Cori Thomas’ very New York-now play, When January Feels Like Summer, put its distinctive take on intersecting plots and characters on stage for the month of October. Thomas’ intuition about the complexities of the human heart was unassailable, and the tight-knit cast of five was adept at every twist of the plot and turn of character. But Debargo Sanyal’s dual roles (as a transsexual-in-process) was forged in another realm—the one where you’ll never forget a performance―and made you want to see whatever he does next. Director Daniella Topol’s sure hand matched writer and actors every step of the way. (I remember being impressed by her work on Row After Row at the Women’s Project.)
In 2013, Joe Gilford’s Finks (a reality-based drama about the McCarthy era and what happened to Gilford’s parents, Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford, when it nearly destroyed them) was sometimes achingly funny, but its message was dark, with its darkest messenger a stand-in for Elia Kazan. It took place at the legendary Cafė Society, and at the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The playwright says “I always thought that my parents’ refusal to name names was heroic. But they always explained that they had no choice. They could never hurt their friends.” Finks was a potent reminder of events that should never be forgotten, from a man who remembered them first-hand.
Isaac’s Eye (by Lucas Hnath), an interpretation of the life of Isaac Newton and his duels with the Royal Society, was another landmark production from EST, this one (like Finks) also a reality-based drama but, as its narrator archly warns us, “The play is true and not true. There are lies, but they help us understand the things that are true.” Hnath, director Linsay Firman, and the entire cast delivered a gorgeous dose of historical snark—firmly anchored by real science (which Hnath must have spend eons absorbing)―via their version of Story Theatre. Just as I finally caught my breath at the final scene, thinking it doesn’t get any better than this, I learned I was wrong. The play was followed by what was arguably the best Q & A in history: the playwright, two history of science professors (working like the proverbial Fric and Frac), moderated by a physicist from Yeshvia University chat. The questions were good (EST’s audience is eager, loyal, and learned), and the answers direct from the cosmos. Only funnier.
The Alfred P. Sloane Foundation and EST have forged one of the theater’s most productive partnerships for sixteen years. Their joint venture has supported many plays, from conception to production (including Isaac’s Eye, and Joe Gilford’s upcoming Danny’s Brain). From now until December 11, you can see what’s in the pipeline and get in on the ground floor with the Sloane/EST First Light Festival. First Light info and tickets