Entertainment » Theatre

The 1599 Project

by Brooke Pierce
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 3, 2016
The 1599 Project

Even casual fans of Shakespeare know that he had range. He wrote comedies, tragedies, histories, and some plays that are genre-defying. But what many people might not know is that in just one year, 1599, he wrote four of his most beloved plays: "Henry V," "Julius Caesar," "As You Like It," and "Hamlet." With "The 1599 Project," inspired by James Shapiro's book "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599," The Irondale Ensemble presents all four of these works in one evening.

A three-hour running time is not atypical for many of the Bard's works, so the idea of four plays in one sitting might sound terrifying. But director Jim Niesen has heavily edited them so that each one clocks in at around an hour (with "Hamlet" running a bit longer, at about 90 minutes). There are brief intermissions between each play, and a nice little Forest of Arden "picnic break" right in the middle (box dinners are available for purchase in advance).

For anyone who loves Shakespeare, but can admit to finding that the plays feel a wee bit long at times, these streamlined adaptations are highly intriguing. Niesen gets down to the meat of the stories, but they never feel rushed. Nor are they just some kind of "greatest hits" collection capturing all the famous speeches and lines (he's not afraid to cut some of the good stuff).

Needless to say, some characters must fade into the background, but Niesen is still careful to create room for some of the Bard's memorable minor characters to shine, whether it's the Welshman Fluellen in "Henry V," lovesick Phoebe in "As You Like It," or the Gravedigger in "Hamlet."

A big benefit of the streamlining is that he has snipped most of the text that is often harder to follow (usually because of references or idioms that are no longer understood), so these are some of the most user-friendly adaptations you'll ever see in terms of the language.

On the other hand, the physical production is also stripped down, with just six actors playing all the parts, and very few props or costume changes. So, if you don't already know the plays, it could be harder to keep up with the plotlines on occasion, particularly in the history plays, where there are a lot of 'people talking off to the side during the middle of a battle and/or murder plot' type scenes that can get confusing without physical context.

That said, those six actors are a wonder. It wasn't until near the end of the third play that it actually dawned on me that it was merely half a dozen people playing nearly 100 characters, and it was an almost shocking realization. The company consists of Joey Collins (Hamlet, Marc Antony, Jacques, Michael-David Gordon (Brutus, Touchstone, Horatio), Terry Greiss (Claudius, Cassius), Sam Metzger (Orlando, Laertes, Fluellen), Alex Spieth (Henry V, Polonia, Phoebe, Portia, Gravedigger), and Katie Wieland (Rosalind, Gertrude, Ophelia, Caesar).

Each of them plays a variety of character types, and they sometimes must morph from one person to another in the blink of an eye. Happily, gender-blind casting allows the company's two talented actresses to take on traditionally male roles like King Henry, Caesar, and Polonius (here dubbed Polonia).

Irondale's performance space is the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, and they use the space brilliantly. Chairs, platforms, rugs, tables, and hangings are rearranged for each play, alternately creating an open cheerful setting for "As You Like It" and a claustrophobic atmosphere for "Hamlet." The audience is brought up to the balcony for "Julius Caesar," where the dark, narrow setting makes us feel like flies on the wall as we watch the conspiracy unfold.

This variety in the seating and viewing arrangements also has the practical advantage of breaking up the four and a half hours and giving the audience a chance to stretch their legs.

The format of "The 1599 Project" doesn't necessarily bring any new insights into the plays. The universality of Shakespeare's works are of course why they have endured, so one can easily make connections between them, but these four works don't appear to have any particularly striking relationship to one another.

That doesn't really matter, though. It's a fun experiment and a unique theatrical experience that allows us to absorb the breadth and depth of the Bard's genius in one fell swoop.

"The 1599 Project" runs through May 28 at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, 85 South Oxford Street in Brooklyn. For information or tickets, call 718-488-9233 or visit www.irondale.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.

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