Shakespeare at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe

Several companies at the upcoming festival are trying to update the Bard.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 24, 2010

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Robert M. Johanson and Anne Grindley in Nature Theater of Oklahoma's exploration of storytelling, Romeo and Juliet

Photo by Peter Nirgini

Over the years, the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe has been witness to all manner of theater, but one guy has usually been underrepresented: William Shakespeare. It’s not surprising—he's technically been responsible for thousands of hours of dull, turgid theater over the last few centuries (even though he obviously needs to be credited with thousands more of great theater), and the festival is all about breaking those conventions. This year, though, there’s a subset of groups taking on the Bard instead of dodging him, with at least five shows based on the words, images and ideas of Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet, arguably Shakepeare’s most famous story, is the jumping-off point of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s production, also titled Romeo and Juliet (Sept. 8-11, Plays and Players Theater). It isn’t at all a conventional staging of the story we all know by heart (or so we think), but that’s where it begins.

Conceived and directed by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the show was born of a series of calls Liska made to friends and relatives, asking each to tell him the story of the star-cross’d lovers. Their responses, which often included imaginary scenes not actually found in the play, are used to explore the idea of story.

According to Copper, Nature was interested in how and why people tell stories. She emphasizes that the show is not about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “The show is filled with questions about storytelling—why we tell a story, how story changes us and how our personal version of a story is a reflection of who we are at a particular moment.”

Shakespeare’s whole canon is sampled in pop-culture mashup Jester’s Dead (Sept. 3-11, the Latvian Society), which swipes text from every Shakespeare play to parody the 1986 film Top Gun.

Director Suzana Berger, of New York-based The Outfit, says the idea came from a wish to bring Shakespeare to the widest audience possible. Company co-founders and co-artistic directors Rhett Henckel and Nat McIntyre settled on Top Gun, which they saw as having all the attributes of Shakespearean drama: Grand ambition, romance, a ghost in need of appeasement, a Jester. Maverick, the lead Tom Cruise character, tends to echo Hamlet; his rival, Iceman, echoes Othello’s treacherous lieutenant Iago. About Jester’s Dead , Berger says, “think the Mechanicals of Midsummer Night’s Dream getting together to perform Top Gun.”

Doing an Elizabethan Top Gun one better, Lucidity Suitcase International combines Shakespeare with Colombian telenovelas (enormously popular Spanish-language soaps) soaps in El Conquistador (Sept. 8-11, Suzanne Roberts Theatre), a tale of Bogota intrigue. “We were fascinated by the link between the dramatic turns in the novelas and Shakespearean drama,” says Thaddeus Phillips, who created the show with Tatiana Mallarino and collaborator Victor Mallarino.

Polonio (a name taken from Hamlet’s Polonius) is portrayed by Phillips, the show’s sole live actor. The other characters, residents of the apartment building where Polonio works as the doorman, are played by Colombian telenovela stars on video screens. Calling back to Shakespeare, there’s a ghost, mistaken identity, a suicide resembling the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, long-separated twins reunited and even a play within a play to root out a villain.

Even in its infancy as an impressive workshop production at the 2005 Fringe, Conquistador featured a remarkably innovative scenic design capable of transforming in the blink of an eye from a dilapidated shack to a gleaming apartment lobby. The new production played off-Broadway and features newly edited video, and should satisfy fans of Phillips, who’s established himself as a festival favorite with a kiddie-pool Tempest and tap-dance extravaganza Lost Soles .

One of Shakespeare’s most off-the-rails works gets a more straightforward production in Plays and Players’ Titus Andronicus (Sept. 16-Oct. 2, Plays and Players Theater). The plot and poetry of this early career shocker, written when Shakespeare was in his mid-20s, have always been overshadowed by the play’s brutal violence—rape, torture, mutilation, more than a dozen killings, cannibalism and a live burial. This has in the past meant that Titus is very rarely staged—Director Liam Castellan believes this production is the first full professional staging of the play in Philly since 1839—but the violence and black humor aren’t necessarily a drawback anymore.

Castellan chose Titus in part to attract a younger audience to one of the city’s oldest theaters, and it makes sense. In the past couple seasons, the company’s had success with two relatively gory shows: the East Coast premiere of William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead and Zombie! The Musical, which played at the 2009 Fringe. Castellan sets this production in a “pre-apocalyptic world,” which he describes as “a tablespoon of Mad Max.” Instead of a decaying Rome, this Titus takes place in a world fraying at the edges with an increasingly intrusive government (think the Patriot Act squared).

Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Cankerblossom is the first in a series of projects they're doing inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream . Here, a couple adopts a live cardboard baby they find on their front porch, only to have to go on a strange journey after the changeling is stolen back to its two-dimensional homeland. Although there’s not much relation plot-wise, Director Dan Rothenberg says his Flatworld was inspired by the fairy forest in Midsummer —an extraordinary, fantastical world hidden right behind the ordinary.

If you wonder why Pig Iron, one of the nation’s most revered alternative-theater companies, would turn to a centuries-dead playwright for inspiration, Rothenberg has a few words. “Even for someone like me who is devoted to original work, Shakespeare remains the gold standard... Pitting imagination against death, and all the different outcomes of that conflict—that’s what ends up exciting me about theater.”

For showtimes, ticket prices and venue locations, call 215.413.1318 or visit

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