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Reinventing Shakespeare, According to the Gospel of Joseph Papp

At the same time, “Illyria,” which begins performances on Oct. 22, would seem to be an ideal touchstone in a theater season plump with bold new interpretations of Shakespeare. (Its title refers to the setting for “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare’s peerless comedy of love and identity under siege.) Perhaps more than any individual in American theater, Papp was responsible for the canon’s transformation into an all-access playground for directors with a populist touch and irreverent imaginations.


“Richard III,” adapted by Marius von Mayenburg and directed by Thomas Ostermeier, is coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Arno Declair

From a lusty, alfresco “The Taming of the Shrew” in Central Park in 1956 (with Colleen Dewhurst in the title role) to the 1971 musical version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Papp productions pumped animating oxygen into a centuries-old body of work too often perceived as being made of unyielding marble. Thus began a New York tradition of taking liberties with Shakespeare in the name of illumination, an iconoclastic classicism that has become the norm instead of the exception.

Among the dynamic heirs to this sensibility is Karin Coonrod, who staged a galloping six-hour production of the “Henry VI” trilogy plays two decades ago that left audiences panting.

This month she brings her very multicultural, world-traveling version of “The Merchant of Venice” to Peak Performances at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. First staged in what was once the Jewish ghetto in Venice, this production from Ms. Coonrod’s Compagnia de’ Colombari addresses the ever-knotty problem of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, by filling the role with not one, but five, performers of varying ages, genders, nationalities and ethnicities.

Another of the so-called problem plays by Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure,” is being dissected by Elevator Repair Service, the vital troupe that has taken apart and reanimated classic American novels by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and, most spectacularly, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Its marathon production of “The Great Gatsby” was staged in its word-for-word entirety (under the title “Gatz”) at the Public Theater in 2010.

The company returns to the Public with the same director, John Collins, and much of the same repertory team (including the brilliant star of “Gatz,” Scott Shepherd) for a contemporary rendering of this troubling Shakespeare tale of mortality and mercy in Vienna. “Measure for Measure” is set in a corruption-riddled city filled with double-dealing politicians and out-of-control hedonists. (It, of course, bears no resemblance to the world of today.) The show begins previews at the Public on Sept. 17.


Sorab Wadia and four other performers will play the title character in “The Merchant of Venice” at Montclair State University.

Andrea Messana

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, another determined (and deluded) politician is poised to claim the throne of England by any means necessary. That would be Richard III, the most vicious and cunning of all Shakespeare’s tyrants.

This version, from Berlin, adapted by Marius von Mayenburg and directed by Thomas Ostermeier, sets the sorry saga of the crookback who would be king in a world of glittering opulence, which is spattered with blood and mud as the egomaniacal Richard’s lust for power leads England into civil war. Any similarities to living heads of state are probably not just coincidental. (The show, performed in German with English supertitles, runs Oct. 11 through 14 at the BAM Harvey Theater, as part of the Next Wave Festival.)

Presumably, the weather, emotional and otherwise, is sunnier in the Boomerang Theater Company’s “Loveless Texas,” at the Sheen Center through Sept. 24. This country and western musical transports Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” to oil country during the Great Depression, where a hedonistic playboy (named King Navarre) discovers that the party’s over.

In “Arden/Everywhere,” which opens on Oct. 8 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, the director Jessica Baumann finds the darker shades, as well as topical resonance, in another of Shakespeare’s comedies, “As You Like It.” As reimagined by Ms. Baumann, this story of exiles in love and in conflict becomes a meditation on immigrants and refugees today, with a multilingual cast that mixes amateurs with professionals.

It’s an approach that might well have warmed the heart of that prescient champion of multiculturalism in the arts — and son of Russian immigrants — Joseph Papp.

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