The Shakespeare Festival that takes place every year around this great playwright's birthday is one 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 Shakespeare and contemporary and award-winning plays—rare for an Off-Off Broadway 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 unrivaled, unless you’re talking about James Shapiro of Columbia, 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. Gerber moonlights 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, and Shakespearean actor, director and producer, and all mostly out of sheer love for the bard 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, for which one of Shakespeare’s plays doesn’t address a myriad of problems? And, besides, references to Shakespeare only tend to catapult conversations to higher 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 tears 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 recap a multitude of plays. These plays ranged from Richard II, Richard III, to the Henrys, and many took us to the topics of history and ephemera, which inadvertently became the subjects of my play, along with arguments they had about them.
The drafts scrutinized for accuracy, I saw that anything I’d cut, Charles put back in. But deliberating whether to put a comma back in, Charles resorted to the physical plays, never to what had previously been said or written and kept entire phrases or monologues rather than excerpts. When seeing him performing them I realized he was comfortable with them because he knew how to navigate in them, effortlessly going where the words took him, for as long as it took without raising his voice or employing histrionics to accomplish the desired. The longer the text, the longer you 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 had to see if Charles was right. From Shakespeare’s smorgasbord excerpts from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, among others were selected 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. Subtly and thoughtfully rendered by, of course, none other than Charles himself, with both fear and its opposite passion, and modestly delivered 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.
The last scenes in Hamlet were also unforgettable, where murderous Claudius was very, very naively played by Jason Howard. 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.
Though I’d read and seen Hamlet many times, previously, I merely recalled the conclusion as one where everyone died in the end. But since seeing the performance at the festival, I now still remember Hamlet and Laertes’ sword fight to this very day, and I can point to the spot on Hamlet’s body where Laertes’ sword penetrated it. The astonishing fight choreography was Kelsey Kurz’s accomplishment, while playing Laertes as well—pretty ingenious!
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. They, too, had witnessed what was truly good and even great about Shakespeare. I was glad I had listened to Charles and come to the Will-A-Thon, but he has that effect, onstage and off, whether rendering Shakespeare’s lines or not .