In Lincoln Center Theater's production of Richard Nelson's TWO SHAKESPEAREAN ACTORS, tragedy once again surrounds a production of the Scottish Play. But Nelson's dazzling new play (a success in London earlier this year) is also an often-humorous account of life in the theater, inspired by a remarkable true story from New York's past.
It's 1849. Two arch rivals - the English star William Macready and the American matinee idol Edwin Forrest - tempt fate when both perform the Scottish Play on the same night in neighboring downtown theaters. Their feud helps incite the already-inflamed rage of anti-British theatergoers, who riot right outside Macready's theater, and 34 people die in the fray.
It may be hard to imagine that such a play could cause such mayhem, but keep in mind that 19th-century audiences were just as passionate about their Shakespeare as some of today's fans are at sporting events and rock concerts. And while Americans now have a love of things British (deftly demonstrated in Nelson's last play, Some Americans Abraod), this was not the case in 1849, when bad feelings lingered between the United States and its former colonial master.
While we our production did not lead to riots, TWO SHAKESPEAREAN ACTORS roused the theater lover in us all. After all, this is a play about actors. Conoisseur calls it "the finest contemporary play that addresses the stage actos, including Tony Award winner Brian Bedford (as Macready), who is himself a distinguished Shakespearean actor, and 3 time Tony-nominee Victor Garber (as Forrest), seen most recently iby New York audiences in Assassins and Lend Me a Tenor. Other familiar faces in the cast are Tom Aldredge, Frances Conroy, Zjelko Ivanek and Judy Kuhn.
This American premiere was directed by Jack O'Brien (artistic director of San Diego's famed Old Globe Theatre), who says: "I read this play and fell in love with it. For years I've been longing for some major American playwright to tell a great American story and here tit is." The production design was by David Jenkins (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes), and Jules Fisher (lighting), with music by jazz keyboardist Bob James.