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Before 2020, it would’ve been hard to draw close parallels between the 21st century and the 17th, but here we are—with an apt reminder in Quintessence Theatre Group’s “Transformation Repertory” presentation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, now onstage at Mt. Airy’s Sedgwick Theater.
In 1608—as in 1603 and 1593—London theaters shut down due to the bubonic plague. Long before germ theory, people understood that the disease spread quickly in crowds, even in the open-air venues of the day, so the closure of theaters and other public spaces was ordered as a social good.
In 2020—for the first time since the 1918 flu pandemic—theaters across the United States and abroad shut down to stop the spread of an illness. Even though it wasn’t immediately clear exactly how Covid-19 was spreading, it was clear that indoor crowds posed a high risk for transmission.
London theaters reopened after the plague in 1610. Some Philadelphia theaters began reopening in late 2021, with most companies mounting their first indoor, in-person productions in 2022. And for Quintessence, it made sense to celebrate the return of in-person performance with a nod to the past: two plays, performed in repertory, that reopened London’s theaters after their third and final plague closure.
A return to rep
The current shows aren’t the company’s first post-shutdown productions—that honor went to The Cure at Troy—but they mark a return nonetheless. In early 2020, Quintessence was preparing to launch its first three-play repertory production. Though a different set of works in repertory, these alternating productions of The Winter’s Tale and The Alchemist allow the company to press play after a two-year pause.
Repertory theater presents a number of challenges, including an especially versatile cast, a flexible setting, precisely placed and programmed lighting, and complex supervision of props and costumes. And on top of all of that, you have to convince your audience to come back for a second show.
Quintessence artists show themselves more than game for the task. Set designer Alexander Burns and lighting designer Ellen Moore manage to convey many places, from the storm-tossed shores of Bohemia to the streets of Elizabethan London, on a multipurpose stage both far more interesting, and just as functional, as any black box.
Aiding in setting the scene are costumes by Jane Casanave (The Winter’s Tale) and Summer Lee Jack (The Alchemist), who each had to design around the needs of players changing not just their clothes but their roles, sometimes in the middle of a scene. (Jack's period costumes for The Alchemist are especially impressive, with one costume that so closely evokes a portrait of Henry VIII that the character wearing it received a laugh just for walking onstage.)
Confident and clear
Neither Shakespeare’s English, nor Jonson’s, is natural to the modern speaker, and many a production has been undone by an actor tripping over Elizabethan verse. Not so for this cast, all of whom handle the challenge with ease. There is a confident fluency to their performances—even if you don’t understand the exact words coming out of their mouths, you have no doubt that they do. With voice and physical presence, they make each story clear for the duration.
There was not a single member of the cast who did not seem as if they were perfectly suited for the role they were playing. However, days after seeing both plays, I find myself unable to forget Hillary Parker’s delivery of Hermione’s courtroom monologue in The Winter’s Tale, and I still find myself chuckling at the interaction between Jered McLenigan and John Zak’s Subtle and Face in The Alchemist. Other standout performances include Travoye Joyner and Lee Thomas Cortopassi in The Winter’s Tale and Hanna Gaffney and Eleni Delopoulos in The Alchemist, but I could say the same of each and every performer in the company.
Context is key
When a company chooses to produce a classical work, it’s often with the pretense of making it relevant to the modern age: several productions of Julius Caesar and Macbeth were mounted in the last few years to comment on demagoguery; Lysistrata is often produced at times when women’s rights seem especially under attack, and a number of classical Greek plays were produced in the first decade of the century as a means of protesting the war in Iraq.
But sometimes it is not the play’s content but the context of the work, or the circumstances surrounding it, that makes it so resonant with our time. Shakespeare and Jonson wrote The Winter’s Tale and The Alchemist, respectively, as the plague raged on outside their doors. These productions, both writers’ first after the plague closures, were a sign of hope in 1610. In 2022, we know the feeling.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the costume designer for The Alchemist as Dave Cope. Dave Cope is the composer. The costume designer is Summer Lee Jack. We regret the error.
What, When, Where
The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare, directed by Alexander Burns; and The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson, directed by Paul Hebron. $20-$55. Through April 17, 2022, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and ID are required to attend, and guests must remain masked throughout the show.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Contact the box office at (215) 987-4450 or [email protected] to arrange for wheelchair-friendly seating and for info about open-captioned performances.
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