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By KATHRYN WALAT
What makes for exciting classical drama? For Red Bull Theater, the answer isn’t found in returning to or reinterpreting the Bard’s best-known works. Instead, the company’s formula begins with seeking out the rarely aired works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries: currently, with their production of John Webster’s Jacobean masterpiece The Duchess of Malfi.
This gem hasn’t been seen on New York stages for over fifty years, perhaps due to its double-digit cast size (about half end up dead) or the difficulty of wrangling a lycanthropic villain. But Red Bull’s artistic director Jesse Berger is treating audiences at midtown’s Theater at St. Clements to exquisite language, powerful women characters, and a healthy dose of the macabre, in this story of a young, widowed Italian duchess, who secretly chooses a new husband, against the wishes of her corrupt brothers.
Red Bull Theater has been making tracks since its 2003 debut with a production of Shakespeare’s late romance Pericles—followed by The Revenger’s Tragedy, Edward the Second, and Women Beware Women. It’s also produced about 60 Revelation Readings of classics and new plays with a classical sensibility.
Just by doing so many overlooked plays, and especially by doing them with a contemporary sensibility, Red Bull Theater has carved out its niche. “After coming to New York, there seemed to be a lot of outlets for new plays, but not a lot for the classics,” says Berger.
He doesn’t do this work just to fill a vacuum, however. It also speaks directly to his artistic sensibility. “What I’ve always been most inspired by in the theatre is heightened language, and a ‘shared active imagining,’ between actor and audience,” he says. “When I really began to dig deeper, what I realized I wanted was great language in the theatre.”
Other artists are just as hungry as Berger for this type of work. The company’s recent reading of David Bar Katz’s Burning, Burning, Burning, Burning, a new play Berger describes as having “classical blood in its veins,” was directed by Soho Rep’s artistic director Sarah Benson. The cast included luminaries like playwright/actor Stephen Adly Guirgis and Eric Bogosian, who participated on his Monday off from performances of Time Stands Still on Broadway.
Audiences are connecting to Red Bull’s sensibility as well. Both productions and readings are routinely well-attended---the latter can attract up to 150 people---and the crowds feature not only the typically “mature” and loyal patrons of classical plays, but also much younger folk, turned on to the visceral appeal of blood and guts and passion—something that Shakespeare and his cohorts understood well.
“These works are much more accessible than people think they are,” notes Matthew Rauch, a Red Bull-regular who has performed in three of its productions and currently plays bad-boy Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.
Berger adds, “The Jacobean audiences had a much freer relationship to laughter and horror in the theatre. Today, if we’re seeing a tragedy, we feel like we have to be serious. If we laugh when someone’s stabbed, that’s not OK. But Jacobean audiences didn’t have those boundaries.”
As Berger embraces that mentality, audiences get to experience the funny feeling that comes with chortling as stage blood spurts across the boards. At Red Bull Theater production meetings, questions have been known to include: do we need to see an eyeball actually pop here, or just see the blood? And what kind of blood?
“One of the reasons I like working with Jesse, for him there’s nothing highfalutin with Jacobean drama,” notes Rauch, “There’s a gut sense to these plays, and an amazing theatricality.” And it’s that lifeblood—both in the approach and the source—that may be the answer why nearly 400-year-old drama still excites on stage.
Kathryn Walat is a New York-based playwright, whose latest work is entitled CREATION.