The build-up was there. I’m sitting with Marcee Doherty-Elst as she pauses before rehearsal. She’s one of Theater Red’s creative directors. They’re producing an a Edwin Booth inspired production entitled Seeds of Banquo. Edwin Booth? Booth rings a bell. That surname echoes through the collective memory held by our history. It rings present to this day more in infamy, for some twisted minds heralded. There’s a connection and a story.
I see thin and limber figure striding ahead in all black. An easy going tank hidden by a featherweight black cardigan drapes over her, the stretchy fabric of her black jeans outlines her legs blending her silhouette against the street-scene. Angela Iannone snatches her mirrored sunglasses down in the falling daylight, “The traffic was terrible from downtown, I got here as quickly as I could,” She’s barely a minutes after when we said we’d meet. Besides Marcee’s been keeping me company.
To the Fore
Theater Red makes stage drama placing women deliberately in substantial roles up and down every playbill, prominently. Shakespeare’s classics receive no exception. Doherty-Elst, co-producer and player in Seeds of Banquo, emphatically attests Theater Red’s mission of supporting endeavors that bring new works such as Jared McDaris’ “New Elizabethan” rendition 1,000 Times Good Night to stage. More to her point on her company’s artistic ethos, they take stories such as Robin Hood and turn them inquisitively to the perspective of the heroine, as staged in Theater Red’s upcoming production Lady in Waiting, told from Maid Marian’s eyes.
Doherty-Elst graciously brings my attention back to Iannone. She’s been at Ten Chimney’s. Okay fine. She’s played lead as Maria Callas in Milwaukee Chamber’s production Master Class. Titan Theater NYC has had her, hmm well. She’s contributed to the The Players in NYC, Edwin Booth’s Theater. Edwin Booth, my-god I was just reading about this guy.
Greetings Mr. Booth
“He’s simply the greatest American actor in history,” Iannone opens a historical trap door and pushes me in, “As an artist, he founded countless conventions modern Theater.” Wait, Booth? The same guy that as recently as 2014 had fluffy internet articles posted about how he saved President Lincoln’s son, pulling him back atop a NJ platform with his bare hands, out of the path of a passenger train. Edwin Booth did not know who Robert Lincoln was. Ironically, Booth does this deed just months before his older brother John Wilkes shot the President dead in Ford Theatre.
It’s fairly well know that John Wilkes Booth stage acted before sealing his infamy, but his brother Edwin is scarcely mentioned in the conversations of contemporary society. Although Edwin Booth was internationally renowned, and recognized in fact by Robert Lincoln as his hero (something Iannone confirms as akin to being rescued by Marlon Brando), in the times following Lincoln’s assassination Booth spent tireless hours trying to scrub clean the bucket of red paint John Wilkes spilled on his family’s legacy. Even so, contributions, accomplishments and all, Edwin Booth stays largely in the shadows of contemporary cultural knowledge. Iannone spiritedly delivers her theory.
“There came a point in the 20th century when society became more interested in morbidity.” Maybe there’s something true in her assessment. Generally speaking, today’s octopus tentacled media and entertainment industry thrives when it’s bloody, shot dead and blown-up. I’ve asked several friends who are respectably versed in theater about Edwin Booth and they all said the same thing, “Sounds familiar.”
Is there more, Mr. Booth?
Iannone shares with me Booth’s backstage meticulousness. Her mind, replete with anecdotes and annotations of his life’s work, spills forth. He ran his own theatre in New York in the mid 19th century, The Players Club. His theater still lives to this day. He had stints in San Francisco and Richmond, and London. He came up with the idea of dimming the house lights during the performance. He used gaslight lanterns. He used full-force fighting techniques, deploying fencing and sword dueling. He developed sound cues and other backstage tech effects.
He joined Sir Henry Irving in 1881, at the struggling Lynceum Theatre in London, and called on Bram Stoker to help jolt the company back to life with a production of Othello. In a keen example of Booth’s brilliance, and he himself being an agent of social change during ante- and post-bellum America, a suffragist and abolitionist, he cast himself as Othello, and defied convention of using black-face to emulate the appearance of the Moor. Booth even frequented Milwaukee, often the benefactor of Fredrick Pabst’s patronage and esteemed player on the Pabst Theatre stage.
Booth took copious notes of his productions in prompt book, left sketches and diagrams, volumes of material that today warrant a place in present day consciousness. His social club and library The Players NYC in Manhattan, remains on many historic preservation lists. Iannone happens to be a preeminent scholar of Booth, and has referenced his notes and prompt books to guide a series of Edwin Booth inspired productions. Seeds of Banquo is the forth in this dramatic cycle.
Shall we, Mr. Booth?
Iannone’s previous odes to Booth entitled The Edwin Booth Company Presents (2011), The Prison Where I Live (2013), and Irving & Booth in Othello (2014), were performed locally and also hit stages that included The Players NYC and Titan Theatre in New York, in which among other topics, Booth is celebrated for his masterful play as one of the greatest Hamlet’s to ever cross the stage.
Iannone stirred flavor into these works, ingredients that purposefully accent the Acts with Victorian era mannerisms fitting of Booth’s time. With greater emphasis, she highlights Booth’s greatest contribution to theater cannon, his signature American Natural Style of performance that emphasized subtlety, distance, grace, emotion and voice in his players’ gestures and movement, a stark contrast from the stilted and overblown styles of his predecessors.
With your own Eye’s
In Angela Iannone’s current project, Seeds of Banquo, we go backstage with Edwin Booth played by John Glowacki, and his friend and rival Lawrence Barrett (Cory Jefferson Hagan), and contemporaries Owen Fawcett (Bryan Quinn), Mrs. DP Bowers (Marcee Doherty-Elst) as they workshop Booth’s production of Shakespeare’s cursed classic, MacBeth. Guided by his own thoughts when he was directing his own version of MacBeth over a century ago, we are brought closer to Edwin Booth. the man and artist, as he and his cast trade barbs, quips and insight, trying to find a meaning in their pursuit to build on what Shakespeare established.
I jest with Iannone, “So you pretty much have built an Edwin Booth time machine.” I sense she sees me becoming more intrigued by the moment, “I never thought it so, but I’ll go along with it.” I sense she knows she’s done something special.
Seeds of Banquo opened August 13, at the Soulstice Theatre in St. Francis, which has a wonderful new stand alone space on 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave, and has five runs left beginning this Wednesday August 19, with additional performances August 20, 21, 22 all at 7:30p and a closing matinee Sunday, August 23 at 2:00pm.