BWW Review: Irondale Ensemble Powers Through 4 Shakespeare Greats in 1599
Last year, Irondale Ensemble Project (one of my theatre company crushes) blew Bertolt Brecht's St. Joan of the Stockyards up into the modern era with imaginative staging that consumed the cavernous Irondale Center. With Joan... and 1599, their latest ambitious offering, the ensemble (led by director Jim Nieson) thrives with turning arcane text loved by the nerdiest of theatre nerds into communal evenings that blur the fourth wall and flip space in fantastic ways accessible to all.
1599 tackles one of William Shakespeare's finest years with incredibly acted hour long adaptations of Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like it, and Hamlet. The show grows in power as the evening zips along (Admittedly, Henry V plays a little slow. History plays, you know?) with a short break in between each. The production takes full advantage of the large space (Ken Rothchild did the scenic design), utilizing the entire upstairs gallery for Julius Caesar. The evening roots itself in it's surrounding community: The night I attended, Antony (Joey Collins) silences a very real pack of angry dogs from the outside with the immortal line "Cry 'Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war." The entire production had this organic, spontaneous feel. At one point, I was personally victimized by Michael David Gordon's Brutus. The fourth wall breaking spontaneity was perhaps best illustrated in the hilarious and breezy As You Like It which plays amongst a picnic. It is here that the incredibly versatile Gordon drew the biggest laughs of the evening as the improvising clown Touchstone mere minutes after his strong Brutus's tragic suicide.
Spectacular as it was to watch the ensemble of six take on iconic roles between plays, the most fun was watching transformations of characters in the same piece. Alex Spieth (of the must watch webseries Blank My Life) contorts herself to play the three supporting gals of As You Like It, from the posh and loyal Celia to the lowly, doting Phoebe.
Hamlet sees Katie Wieland adeptly dominate as the most tragic Ophelia I've seen and provide similar sparks with Collins's angsty title prince as a completely transformed Gertrude. This Hamlet is also a notable one for having Collins's Hamlet play The Player Queen; an oedipal choice that I can't unsee. Each play features successful and radical conventions, like these that changed the way I think about these four legendary works.
After the piece, an inviting atmosphere beckons the audience to chat with the actors after their intense marathon. During this I heard talk of 1599 becoming part of the regular programing of the space. Pretty please, "play on."
1599 runs till May 28th at Irondale Center (85 South Oxford Street. Brooklyn, NY 11217). For more information, visit http://irondale.org/onstage/current-season/1599-project/.