While Broadway has been spending the last few weeks anticipating whether their most recent productions will make it or break it under the Tony Awards chopping block, Off-Broadway theatre companies have begun to premiere their exciting new shows for the summer season. Here are two productions that should make you keep your eyes open for the theaters beyond Broadway’s bright lights:
Mobile Shakespeare Unit Presents Macbeth at the Public Theater.
The Public Theater is famous for their free Shakespeare in the Park performances at the Delacorte Theater every summer, but they produce Shakespearean productions year-round. Their Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which continues to spread Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s mission that Shakespeare is for everyone, performs Shakespeare’s plays for the public in nontraditional venues, such as shelters, prisons, and elderly care centers, throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Every Mobile Shakespeare Unit production ends its NYC tour with a run at the Public Theater. This year the Mobile Shakespeare Unit tackled Macbeth, and their production is just as revelatory as the Public’s more lavish presentations of Shakespeare’s work.
If you don’t know the plot summary, I’ll Spark Notes it further for you: Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, meets three witches who make prophecies of his growing power. Lady Macbeth, his wife, is loving this supernatural development, and encourages Macbeth to murder the King. The body count only rises from here.
This production, directed by Edward Torres, has a practicality befitting both its genesis as a touring show and the world of the play itself. Macbeth’s Scotland was one of thanes and kings, but it was also one of war and bloody takeovers. Wilson Chin’s set design, cleverly composed of small movable pieces, and Amanda Seymour’s utilitarian, grey-toned costume design created an aesthetic that is efficient for the cast to use and the audience to absorb. The fight sequences were effective, their choreography and execution being athletic and brutal. And Rob Campbell’s performance as Macbeth imbued the character with a rugged charisma that allowed me to see the character in a more nuanced way.
With this compact but emotionally rich production of Macbeth, it is clear that the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s work would do Joe Papp proud.
What I Did Last Summer at the Signature Theatre.
Signature Theatre’s revival of What I Did Last Summer takes audiences back to a familiar time and place. Set in the summer of 1945, fourteen-year-old Charlie (Noah Galvin) is summering with his mother and sister on the shores of Lake Erie. When Charlie, sick of avoiding his mother’s chores and wondering about his father serving overseas, sees a flyer for a summer job, he leaps at the chance to make some pocket change and impress his friends. But his employer, Anna Trumbull (Sara Krulwich) is notorious in the town for her part Native American heritage and affair with a well-known doctor. She has been dubbed the “Pig Woman” by locals, and her art teaching and leftist point of view are both strange and exhilarating for Charlie. But the summer must come to an end, and Charlie’s mother (Carolyn McCormick) is determined to restore order and bring her son home.
At first glance, What I Did Last Summer seems like a play that is covering well-trodden territory. There is no shortage of coming-of-age stories about young white boys in America’s nostalgic past, and I wondered what A.R. Gurney’s play could say that hasn’t already been said before. As it turned out, quite a bit. Anna’s mentorship of Charlie is a unique element of the play, as I don’t recall many stories about a young man who was inspired by an older woman in an unromantic way. As Charlie asserts his independence (which has decidedly mixed results), he does so in a way that shows that he is growing up–but is still a boy who must fall back in line with his family’s values.
What I Did Last Summer is also not afraid to state it’s a play, with projections of stage directions, direct addresses by the characters stating who the play is and isn’t about, and a drummer clad in forties garb who provides sound effects, incidental music, and an omniscient presence of his own. John Narun’s projection design is especially moving, as the set directions and dialogue, in the ubiquitous typewriter font, became breathtaking and evocative backdrop images that set the scene both on page and on the stage.
Though What I Did Last Summer takes us to often-visited places, like Charlie and Anna, it forges its own path–and audiences are all the better for it.