A Will-A-Thon Win
The Shakespeare Festival that takes place every year around the great author’s birthday is one that not many people are privy to. Probably because it has the makings of a sect, as it is run by a select few and for only a select few, the former being some of New York’s best Shakespearean actors and the latter Midtown’s The Workshop Theater, which puts up occasionally Shakespeare, but mostly contemporary and often award-winning plays and productions—rare for an Off-Off Broadway, or now called, NY Indie Theater. Luckily, if there’s room, non-members can attend the Will-A-Thon Festival, though they might need to be friends to find out about it.
Conceived in 2004 by Charles E. Gerber, one of The Workshop Theater’s founding members, the Will-A-Thon is going strong, continuing all these years. One reason is it is run almost exclusively by Gerber, whose passion for Shakespeare is virtually unrivalled, unless you’re talking about James Shapiro of Columbia, Harold Bloom of Yale and/or the venerable Tony Award winning and Theater Hall of Fame Honoree, Richard Easton, who graciously guest starred in this festival three years in a row: 2013-2015. Moonlighting between teaching Shakespeare at The Workshop Theater, teaching a course in the History of Film Acting at NYU as well as being a free-lance player of contemporary media, along with a Shakespearean actor, director and producer, all mostly out of sheer love for the bard being the impetus.
Inside the walls of the theater he is sometimes referred to as Charles Shakespeare, and if you ever get the chance to speak with him you’ll know why. Talking to Charles he will more often than not recite some text from the plays if he feels it best responds to the situation, but it does not go amiss, because which one of Shakespeare’s plays doesn’t address myriads of problems? And the usages only tend to catapult conversations to sager places, unless you don’t do well deciphering Shakespeare, then you might be rear-ended. Though sometimes you might get a sonnet, a full sonnet, soft-spoken and so naturally delivered, the receiver might be brought to shed a tear or two if it’s their first time after years’ of seeking the pureness of Shakespeare’s words.
I met Charles after becoming a member of The Workshop Theater, our names randomly chosen from a hat for an improv exercise for the theater’s Meet-n-Greet event. Having selected another Shakespeare great, Ken Glickfeld, and long-time friend with Charles, and the two sharing a production history of Shakespearean works, our improvs quickly gave way to recaps from Richard II, Richard III, the Henrys, and many others, history and ephemera, which inadvertently became the subject of the play, along with any arguments they had going into it.
The drafts scrutinized for accuracy, I saw that anything I’d cut of Charles part put back in, but even when deliberating whether to put back in a comma, Charles brought out the physical plays, never resorting to what had previously been written or said and keeping entire phrases or monologues rather than excerpts. Upon seeing him performing them I realized he was more than comfortable with long texts because he knew how to navigate in them. It seemed effortless for him to go where the words took him, and maneuver there for as long as it took to accomplish what was desired, never even as much as raising his voice or employing histrionics. The longer the text, the longer I stood mesmerized.
Throughout it all I hadn’t hesitated relating that I was no Shakespeare fan—having walked out from many productions, including those at Lincoln Center, but Charles simply answered, “Don’t worry—that’ll all change when you come to the Will-A-Thon,” to which I nodded.
Though having a schedule conflict when it finally arrived, the Will-A-Thon won out—I wanted to see if Charles was right. From Shakespeare’s smorgasbord Charles selected excerpts from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, among others speaking to today’s times. First and foremost showing “the age and body of the time” from Henry IV, Part 2, was the Induction monologue with Rumor, the originator of Fake News, conveyed quite honestly by Letty Ferrer.
Most touching was Act 3, scene 1 from The Merchant of Venice where Shylock expresses what it’s like being Jewish and made to suffer for things one wouldn’t subject a normal human being to, and then for a person having to withhold reacting like they are even human. It was so subtly and thoughtfully rendered by, of course, none other than Charles himself, with both fear and its opposite passion, delivered modestly in hopes of affecting another and altering a strange convention. It was the first I’d witnessed Shakespeare’s lines sans emotional disconnect, as unfortunately had usually been the case.
Further unforgettable were the last scenes in Hamlet, with murderous King Claudius, very naively played by Jason Howard and to his credit—maybe he brought something from Trump into the role. But Liz Amberly’s heartfelt and innocent portrayal of Gertrude who seemed for once more concerned for her son, did much justice to the play, rendering J. Warren Weber’s Hamlet’s unforgivingness of her and her husband more potent and vengeful, and taking the play farther than it ever had before in my view.
Though I’d seen Hamlet many times, knowing everyone dies in the end, I still remember Hamlet and Laertes’ sword fight, and where Laertes’ sword struck, and my shuddering, with a scratch alone being enough to subdue Hamlet, the poison eventually affecting him. The astonishing fight choreography was Kelsey Kurz’s accomplishment, while ingenuously playing Laertes as wel!
Of course the cozy Jewel Box Theater helped in receiving all this. After the production, when the cheering audience jumped up and ran over hugging and kissing the entire cast, I saw that everyone had felt the same thing, had witnessed what was truly good and even great Shakespeare. I was glad I had listened to Charles and come to the Will-A-Thon, but he has that effect, onstage and off, when rendering Shakespeare’s lines, and even when he’s not.
Photo credit: Greg Oliver Bodine