William Shakespeare

As performed by the Pearl Theatre Company resident acting company on February 15, 2009

The Pearl repertory company keeps classic theatre alive more than any other company in NYC.  And they seem to do well.  This last Sunday matinee played to a full house and on each occasion I have attended plays here there have been few empty seats.

I like the company, and therefore won’t nitpick.  They avoid the challenges of elaborate set construction and scene change by not building any.  One spartan piece supports the entire production.  Very practical, and since they perform unselfconsciously it doesn’t detract.  Indeed this play–and others I’ve seen–depend on the acting of their members.  In Twelfth Night all of the acting is competent, sometimes better and sometimes even better than that.  Like the scene where the overly fastidious and judgmental Malvolio, played by Dominic Cuskern attempts to smile.  Very well done.  Unfortunately we were deprived of the talent of Sean McNall, arguably the Pearl’s best actor, who was out of town on personal business.  It is always entertaining to watch McNall work.  He is a true actor, creating his characters, never copying them.  His delivery is usually seen only in much older and more seasoned actors, and then only infrequently.

One always must suspend belief to a certain extent when watching a play, but the director has to do a bit more to make us believe.  There are times when he can’t just hope we know the play and expect us to go along as if.  Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by a repertory company is that you must cast from within your ranks.  You don’t have access to the vast pool of actors hungry for jobs.  Still, if a play calls for two people to look identical enough to fool everyone around them, as does Twelfth Night, you have to do more than just have them wear similar shirts and pants.  In fact, Viola does not look like Sebastian and the play revolves on us believing that those who see them believe that they do.  Makeup, Mr. Sullivan:  eye shadow, cheek blush, pointy ears – anything.  Make them look alike.  Make suspension of belief possible.  Someone who doesn’t know the play will be bewildered by the essential mistaken identity device.  In theatre as in journalism, assume the audience has just happened in from out of town and has no clue about anything.

J.R. Sullivan, The Pearl’s incoming artistic director, does a good enough job with the rest of it.  He is replacing Shepard Sobel, founder and artistic director since the start in 1984.  Big boots to fill, indeed.  We wish him luck.