“Illyria” can refer to a lot of different things. First of all, it is the mythical, topsy-turvy setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where the cross-dressing, quick-thinking Viola finds herself alone and lost following a shipwreck and separation from her twin Sebastian. It is also the title of a musical version of a little-known 2002 musical version of Twelfth Night written by Peter Mills. When the Public Theater revealed the slate of its 2017-18 Off-Broadway season to include Illyria, I assumed they were referring to the Mills musical. Not so.
Illyria is now also the title of playwright-director Richard Nelson’s new historical drama depicting Joseph Papp and his family, friends and colleagues during the early years of the New York Shakespeare Festival – before Papp’s battle with city builder Robert Moses was over, before the Astor Library became a multi-stage Off-Broadway venue, before the Public Theater became a landmark city cultural institution, and before the Delacorte Theatre was built in Central Park, cementing Shakespeare in the Park as a tradition for New Yorkers of all backgrounds and income levels.
Set over three scenes, and running approximately two hours without intermission, Papp (played with charisma by John Magaro) is depicted as a scrappy young producer-director struggling to sell his vision of free professional Shakespeare to a skeptical public and facing endless bureaucratic, financial, artistic and personal difficulties. The play also includes other real-life figures who were involved in the theater’s early days such as actress Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton), resident director Stuart Vaughan (John Sanders), press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Kranz) and producer Bernard Gersten (Will Brill). George S. Scott (though not a character) is also in their company.
In what has become Nelson’s signature style at the Public Theater, Illyria is quiet and slow, conversational and understated, involving but unresolved. Nelson (whose early works include Two Shakespearian Actors and Some Americans Abroad, as well as the book for the Broadway version of the musical Chess) has revived his career at the Public Theater over the past decade with The Apple Family and The Gabriels, multi-play projects that depict a single family on multiple occasions, with everyday problems contrasted with national events (such as elections and major anniversaries) occurring in the background. Personally, I found these plays to be boring in spite of the hyper-realistic ensemble acting.
Illyria ends without climax or even a hint of resolution, and much of the conversation (occasionally bringing up topics of the period such as the megaprojects of builder Robert Moses and the McCarthy hearings) rambles on too long. All that being said, I did quite like Illyria and for the most part, it held my attention, but I wonder whether that is primarily a result of my own interest in Papp and this period in New York City history. The very idea of revisiting a time of struggle and uncertainty for the Public Theater is fascinating, especially considering how the Public Theater has achieved new commercial success thanks to Hamilton and is buzzing with loads of activity (i.e. Under the Radar Festival, Public Works, Mobile Unit, high-profile Off-Broadway premieres). At the time of Illyria, Papp’s free Shakespeare project could have easily crashed and burned and been reduced to the ash heap of theater history.
If Nelson and the Public Theater are game, Illyria could conceivably serve as the starting point for a whole cycle of plays on the theater’s history, with future installments chronicling events such as the opening of the theater on Astor Place with the rock musical Hair, the workshop-style development of A Chorus Line, the chaos following the death of Papp, and last year’s controversial Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar.