For its current six-week residency, the Royal Shakespeare Company has moved into the Park Avenue Armory in an impressive strategic fashion. Befitting a crack regiment, in preparation for its artistic takeover of New York City the company sent an advance facsimile kit of its own Stratford-on-Avon stage to be assembled within the vast armory. A bold gesture, the wholesale recreation of the English theater within the New York armory nevertheless proved a practical measure, as the actors and stage crew did not have to bother with learning new blocking and tech cues on an unfamiliar stage. Smart move indeed.
The Park Avenue Armory seems an appropriate place for the RSC to stage their advance on New York soil. After all, the theater and the military often share the same vocabulary. A geographical place for military operations is often called "the theater," as in the World War II references to the Pacific Theater and the European theater of operations. Much like a director, generals in war design strategic battles, moving around their soldier players upon the stage or battlefield. The RSC's repertory of plays staged in the Armory often evoke the imaginary fields of battle - Brutus and Cassius planning their attack on Mark Antony in Julius Caesar or the carnage of madness at the end of King Lear. Even the plot of the pastoral comedy, As You Like It, hinges on turns of treason and banishment.
Audience members at the RSC stagings in the Park Avenue Armory are in for a double treat, one for the excellent productions and the other for the newly discovered pleasures of the armory's extraordinary interior rooms. Dating from 1881, the Armory was built by the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, an outfit that included many members of New York's aristocracy (Roosevelts, Stewarts, Harrimans). The prestigious regiment naturally wanted the finest structure created by New York's finest craftspeople, artists, and architects, so the likes of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, Charles W. Clinton, the extraordinary Herter Brothers (woodworkers, cabinet makers, interior designers), and many others were employed on its construction.
Audience members arriving early for Shakespeare or for the break at intermission are thus free to wander through magnificent restored reception rooms, library, company rooms, entrance hall, and corridors. Each art-filled room is a jaw-dropping wonder to behold, as if a Gilded Age New York art museum were to devote most of its rooms to military culture. The vast expanse of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, an open space of 50,000 square feet, encloses the main exhibition and performance space. Ongoing renovations will complete the process of repurposing the regiment's military palace into an artistic instrument of peace.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is co-produced by the Park Avenue Armory and the Lincoln Center Festival in association with Ohio State University. Performances continue through August 14, 2011.
See the official website of the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, between E. 66th and E. 67th for more on the building and upcoming attractions.
News on the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory:
• NPR: The RSC in NYC: 41 Actors, Five Plays, Six Weeks
by Jeff Lunden
• The New York Times: Enter a Royal Ensemble, Preceded by Its Stage
by Alexis Soloski. June 30, 2011
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.