Classic drama from every epoch

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble favors ‘unencumbered, utterly organic’ style

BY MARTIN DENTON  |  It is no exaggeration to say that Craig Smith and Elise Stone have dedicated their lives to bringing the best of world theater — both contemporary and classic, going all the way back to the Greeks — to New York audiences.

As actors at the sadly departed Jean Cocteau Repertory, they sparkled brilliantly in plays as diverse as “Medea,” “Hedda Gabler,” “The Merchant of Venice” and Lanford Wilson’s “Talley & Son.” If you were any kind of theater fan in the 1990s, then you knew about these remarkable actors who labored — in true repertory fashion — at the (also now sadly departed) Bouwerie Lane Theatre in the East Village. After Jean Cocteau Rep’s demise, Smith and Stone decided to take on new responsibilities, and this has very much proven to be a true gift to theater lovers in NYC.

In 2004, with three other Cocteau alumni, they founded Phoenix Theatre Ensemble — a company dedicated to presenting much of the same kind of theater to audiences as the Cocteau had when it was run by founder Eve Adamson. They define their mission succinctly: to produce “plays new and old that tell great stories revealing humanity and the human condition in all its myriad forms.” I’d like to expand on that just a bit: Phoenix Theatre Ensemble gives audiences the rare opportunity to experience classic drama from every epoch of history in as authentic, unencumbered, and utterly organic style as possible. When you see a play at Phoenix, you are seeing THE PLAY — not somebody’s offbeat interpretation of it, but the work that the author wrote.

In the seven years since its birth, Phoenix’s repertoire has run the gamut, just as fans of Smith and Stone expected. They’ve presented new verse drama by Glyn Maxwell; expert renditions of difficult 20th century plays by the likes of Tom Stoppard, Bertolt Brecht, Eric Overmyer and Eugene Ionesco; and classics by Ibsen, Shaw and Euripides.

One of the highlights was the American premiere of “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda” — Sonja Linden’s extraordinary play about a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who comes to live in London (Stone made her directorial debut with this piece). About a third of the proceeds from that run benefited various charities supporting Rwandan refugees. This level of generosity and community spirit is a mainstay of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s vision.

As directed by co-artistic director Amy Wagner, their most recent mainstage production (“Iphigenia at Aulis”) exemplified the company’s approach to classic theater. Using a new, unfamiliar American translation by W.S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr., they went right to the heart of the play, showing us why a 2,500-year-old work of art still matters. In my review, I wrote, “Clytemnestra is fine with sacrificing someone’s daughter to get the winds blowing — just not hers.” I’d not seen that nuance in other productions of this fairly ubiquitous work. Leave it to Phoenix to find such a humanizing element in an ancient drama.

Wagner is one of the company’s seven co-artistic directors, by the way — along with Smith and Stone, the others are Brian Costello, Kelli Holsopple, Kathy Menino and Joe Menino. Costello and Joe Menino will be co-starring in Phoenix’s next production — a new revival of Yasmina Reza’s “Art” directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Costello will play Marc, a man who is dumbfounded when his best friend Serge (Menino) buys a postmodern painting that is, as far as he can tell, a blank white canvas. Jason O’Connell, who has worked with the company from the very beginning, completes the cast as Yvan — the younger man who finds himself caught in the middle of his friends’ increasingly strained relationship. “Art” will begin performances on December 8 and continue through the 18th. It plays at the Wild Project — a gorgeous, welcoming, green space at 195 East 3rd Street not far from Avenue B that has been the company’s home for three seasons now.

“Art” is “a unique play,” says director Kaikkonen. “Very true, deep and funny. A play about three friends. And friendship is a relationship that comes without set rules. We have to make them up for ourselves, and that’s treacherous territory. It gets to the bone of friendship and does it with extraordinary wit.” Playwright Reza made her reputation with this intriguing work back in the ’90s (and her recent hit “God of Carnage” is now a major motion picture directed by Roman Polanski). So Phoenix is giving audiences a chance this month to contrast and compare the two most famous works by this acclaimed author.

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble will continue their 2011-2012 season with a new version of “Agamemnon” (part two of their Trojan War trilogy, begun last year). They are also doing a series of staged readings of works by Strindberg; plus there’s always work for children on the roster — including a new holiday-themed musical: “The Toymaker’s Apprentice.” Written by Kathy Menino, with songs by Ellen Mandel, it will fill the weekend matinee slots during the run of “Art.”

The thread that runs through everything Phoenix does — that motivated, I think, Smith, Stone and their co-founders to create the company in the first place — is a strong and genuine passion for the art. There’s never a crass or commercial or cynical impulse behind their work. If they are doing a play, it’s because they care about it, they are committed to it. Such authenticity informs all their productions and makes them distinctive and worthy. I fully expect that their “Art” will mine all of its humor and all of its depths. Together, the audience and the artists will learn all they can about a deceptively complicated piece of theater.

Martin Denton is the founder and editor of nytheatre.com. His latest project is indietheaternow.com.