Downtown Dramatics VII: Theatre For A New Audience

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By Emma Gold, Highlighter staff columnist

In the past few weeks, mainstream attention has been flooding to Theatre For A New Audience because of a single face: Oscar Isaac. A film favorite that has shot to stardom following his featured role in the latest “Star Wars film,” he is slated to play the titular role of Hamlet there next season. Isaac will be directed by Sam Gold, who was recently in the spotlight for his impeccable, Tony-winning direction of “Fun Home.” His other most notable works are his direction of plays by Annie Baker, making his jump to Shakespeare a surprising yet exciting one. As this will inevitably draw attention to Theatre For A New Audience (TFANA) from Isaac, Gold, and Shakespeare-lovers alike, we may be witnessing the beginnings of a rapid rise in TFANA’s popularity.

Founded by Jeffrey Horowitz in 1979, TFANA’s signature endeavor has always been Shakespeare and classical plays. However, it has developed works from contemporary writers like Elizabeth Swados and Suzan Lori-Parks, and features a balance of new and old in every season. Its roster of past directors is staggering, featuring the likes of Bartlett Sher, Peter Brook, and Julie Taymor. TFANA also has a program for New York City Public Schools in which it integrates tangible Shakespearean performance into the student’s curriculum. Bringing professional artists into the classroom and students to matinees, TFANA’s goal is to make Shakespeare accessible to audiences of all shapes and sizes.

In 2013, TFANA opened a new home at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in the Brooklyn Cultural District, near the Lafayette and Atlantic Avenue stops along the B/D and N/R lines. This center is located across the street from the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) complex, forming an intersection that makes the title of Cultural District apt, as so many varying and impressive productions have made its way through these blocks over the past few years. The Polonsky is gorgeous, light-filled, and modern, something one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Shakespeare center. Its sidewalk-to-rooftop windows and café / bookshop on the lower level make it an ideal theatrical space, one that not only houses a performance venue but has appealing spots for conversation, reflection, and engagement. This is the first theatre in New York built specifically for Shakespeare and dramatic repertory productions since the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center’s construction in 1965.

I saw TFANA’s first production of the season, “Isolde,” back in September. It bridged an odd gap between classic and modern, as it was a completely contemporary script that was deeply rooted in the legend of Tristan and Isolde. It played like a very contemporary piece as well, with a strikingly minimalistic set design and stylized acting and directing choices. It was one of the strangest theatrical experiences I’ve had all season, but one of the most informative in terms of how a myth can be completely transformed. Notably, amidst predominantly classic works last season, was a production of “An Octoroon,” a now-popular new play by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. It originated at Soho Rep and won a few Obie awards (including one for Best New American Play) before transferring to the Polonsky for a more official opening.

After “Isolde” closed, a production of “Pericles” enjoyed a long, extended run. Directed by Trevor Nunn, who is best known for directing musicals like “Cats” and “Les Misérables,” this production told the classic story of a hero’s journey, featuring a musical score performed by the PigPen Theatre Company, who were integrated as company members. Next, TFANA will open two plays in repertory: “A Doll’s House” by Ibsen and adapted by Thornton Wilder, paired with “The Father” by August Strindberg. Both will be directed by Arin Arbus and feature the same cast. In a fascinating video from their first rehearsal, Arbus and Jeffrey Horowitz detail the rivalry between Ibsen and Strindberg, as “The Father” is said to be a response to “A Doll’s House.” Arbus expresses that “I hope in presenting the two plays in rep, we will become aware of their distinct points of view.” This surely compelling production will open on April 30th.

The Polonsky Shakespeare Center is located at 262 Ashland Pl, Brooklyn, NY.

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