Theater Review: The Public Theater Stages Its Own Origin Story

Onstage at the Public, a play about the Public: Illyria. Photo: Joan Marcus As the lights in the Public’s Anspacher Theatre began to dim at the start of Illyria —Richard Nelson’s searching, anti-theatrical ode to a theater—the opening chords of The Decemberists’ “A Beginning Song” filled the space and my heart gave a little jump. The Decemberists are a Portland-based alt-folk-rock band whose lush, hyper-articulate storytelling songs changed 17-year-old Sara’s life forever: if you’re in your early thirties and an indie fan, chances are you’ll catch some serious feelings when Colin Meloy’s voice comes over the speakers. Watching the company of Illyria move through the half-light—arranging furniture, rolling out rugs, and setting up their playing space with an unhurried, cooperative sense of calm—I was catching those feelings (and the play hadn’t even really begun). I also couldn’t help but wonder: Why this very contemporary—as much as I hate to say it, millennial, even—song to begin a story set half a century ago? That story is, to put it mildly, close to home. Nelson—who has directed his own play with the unobtrusive touch of a documentary filmmaker—has created a kind of 50th-birthday present for the theater where he’s made a […]

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