Manhattan Isle was full of noises, all right.
The cast of Lear deBessonet’s production of The Tempest—some 206 performers (count ’em if you can), ranging from big-voiced Broadway leading man Norm Lewis, decked out as Prospero, to wise-cracking cab drivers, a gospel choir and a gaggle of pre-teen ballerinas from Eliot Felds Ballet Tech playing island spirits—was making the scripted part of the noise. The rest of the din—laughter, cheers, group sing-alongs—was coming from the 2,000 or so spectators in the Delacorte Theater, who already must have been thinking of themselves as (to borrow a phrase from a different play) “we few, we happy few” to have experienced one of only three performances of this uniquely imaginative open-air pageant.
That was last September. Now, the expansive, radically inclusive protocol that director deBessonet employed for her Tempest—christened Public Works by its populist-inclined sponsor, New York City’s Public Theater—is being applied this Sept. 5–7 to another outdoor Bardic meditation on impulsive love and justice delayed, The Winter’s Tale. DeBessonet, you have to figure, is onto something.
Critic and arts reporter Helen Shaw worked as a dramaturg on last year’s Tempest, so she brings an insider’s insight to her lead feature, “Seeker of Hard-Won Joy,” about the 33-year-old director, her community-engagement ethos and her burgeoning directorial career at the Public and elsewhere.
DeBessonet’s favorite directorial ploy (borrowed, she says, from mentor Bartlett Sher) is to “unearth the substructure of any work, its deep genre.” That approach to dramatic writing wins implicit approval in this issue’s follow-up feature, playwright Richard Nelson’s provocative essay “On the Peculiar Nature of Theatre.” “What if we think about theatre as not a representation of anything, but rather as life, a part of life itself? A relation of live human being to live human being at the same time in the same place—life,” Nelson proposes with a forthrightness that deBessonet would relish. Shouldn’t the two of them have lunch?
Better still, if there’s a bigger table available, the writer and the director might want to expand the conversation about the essentials of drama to include Julia Jarcho and Sibyl Kempson, a pair of playwrights recently inspired by the life and work of literary cult figure Jane Bowles (“Two Serious Ladies”). Gender-bending Shakespearean Lisa Wolpe (“1,000 to 1”) would no doubt enliven the conversation with some historical perspective and feminist insight. This month’s table of contents makes a festive guest list.
The issue also has a far-from-festive aspect: In Memoriam tributes to four indelible talents of the American theatre, recently deceased. Our arts community will not witness again accomplishments like those of Ruby Dee, Mary Rodgers, Elaine Stritch and Eli Wallach. The affection for these artists and the esteem in which they were held by their colleagues and contemporaries courses through the tributes by, respectively, Carl Hancock Rux, Ted Chapin, Harold Prince and Lonny Price, to whom American Theatre is in particular debt for their eloquence.