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BY SCOTT STIFFLER Having put their stamp on cabaret, musical theater and modern drama, the latest project from EPIC Players is a first-class case of postage due, as the neuro-inclusive company (EPIC stands for “empower, perform, include and create”) adds that mandatory Shakespeare credit to their body of work.
Founded in 2016, the young but prolific group is currently an “Anchor Partner” at Tribeca’s Flea Theater. Their 40+ members take part in theatrical productions, workshops and showcases, while also sharpening necessary skills such as on-camera acting and auditioning. Many are on the autism spectrum, working alongside those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and vision or mobility impairment. Determined to present adaptations of stand-alone artistic merit, but also dedicated to creating work that draws upon their unique life experiences, Shakespeare’s final play is a fitting choice for their first excursion into his challenging realm.
“There’s an ‘otherness’ about it that we wanted to explore,” noted artistic director Aubrie Therrien, of “The Tempest.” Therrien, who shares directing credit on this production with Travis Burbee and Meggan Dodd, explained why the work resonates with EPIC. “Our Prospero is played by a fellow living on the spectrum,” she said, of lead actor Anton Spivack, “and I think he really encompasses the character’s struggle. Prospero was excommunicated from his social hierarchy by his brother and his peers, and banished to this island where he created his own world, his own magic. Now his relatives are coming onto shore, and he has to decide if he wants to forgive them or not.”
“I relate to his feeling of isolation and alienation, and his desire for vengeance,” said Spivack of Prospero. “There have been times in my life where I felt excluded, particularly when I was younger and had a hard time getting along with my classmates… There have been times when others made me want to get back at them,” he noted, but also cited Act 4, Scene 1 as his personal favorite — a telling nod to how the play’s notions of revenge and forgiveness intersect. “In the scene,” Spivack explained, “Prospero blesses the union of Miranda and Ferdinand and makes the pageant appear, only to have it end. It’s a strong emotional shift, going from joyous to deep and contemplative, with one of Shakespeare’s all-time best monologues.”
With its tongue-twisting language and layers of emotional complexity, Shakespeare has proven a daunting task to actors of every level of experience — but Therrien noted that in raising their bar to embrace the Bard, the adaptation created by her directing team is comprised largely of “cuts for time/length… and we shifted some minor dialogue around to accommodate the speech needs of our actors.”
Audiences familiar with EPIC’s recent work (the Peanuts-themed musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and play, “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead”) will see a much different cast, Therrien said, noting that in addition to Spivack, those who play “Miranda, Ferdinand, Ariel and Caliban have not had lead roles with us in the past.” This production, she said, has EPIC’s largest cast so far: 20. Somewhat more modest numbers, and new faces, await their upcoming productions, with adaptations of “The Little Prince” and “Little Shop of Horrors” on the horizon. “We are a teaching company,” Therrien said, “so we want to teach actors they might not get the lead in every play.”
As for what Spivack would like us to learn from observing the events on Prospero’s newly populated island, he told us, “I hope the audience sees what people with neurological disorders are capable of doing, that we can bring Shakespeare to life and get the audiences to identify with us — and our characters.”
May 31 to June 10. Thurs.–Sat. at 7pm and Sun. at 2pm. At The Flea Theater (20 Thomas St., btw. Broadway & Church). Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with a 10-minute intermission. For tickets, visit theflea.org ($25 general admission, $55 for reserved seating). Opening night tickets ($55) include admission to the reception, with food and open bar. For more info about EPIC, visit epicplayersnyc.org. Social Media: facebook.com/epicplayersnyc, instagram.com/epicplayersnyc, and twitter.com/epicplayersnyc.